The Consequences of Criminalizing Abortion – The Brazilian Case

A recent report on abortion in Brazil has revealed the impact on women’s lives and health when their reproductive freedoms are restricted. Unlike El Salvador and Nicaragua, Brazil allows abortion in the rare cases of rape, anencephaly, or when the mother’s life is at risk. However, in what is an all-too-common pattern throughout much of Latin America, criminalization of abortion has failed to eliminate the practice, instead forcing it underground, reducing women’s reproductive freedom even while greatly increasing the risk to their health.

Despite its illegality, Brazil’s Ministry of Health estimates that about 1 million abortions are performed in the country annually, and that about 200,000 women die every year from infections, vaginal bleeding, and other complications from illegal abortions. Other estimates put those numbers even higher.

2010 University of Brasilia study found that 1 in 5 Brazilian women under 40 — more than 5 million women overall, or about 22% of Brazil’s population — had had at least one abortion. According to the report, at least 50% of those women were hospitalized for complications. Abortion is the fifth-highest cause of maternal mortality.  […]

A disproportionate number of women who seek illegal abortions in Brazil are poor, young, and uneducated. According to the 2010 study, about 42% of women have their first abortion between the ages of 12 and 19, and about about 23% of women with less than a fourth-grade education have had an abortion.

“If you are older and you have money, there are private clinics that are reasonably good,” Barroso said. “But if you are young and poor, you are really at the mercy of this terrible situation.” […]

In addition to the health threats, women who seek an illegal abortion in Brazil are under the constant threat of criminal action.

While prosecutions are rare, women who are hospitalized for abortion complications frequently face criminal and civil action, and even run the risk of spending up to three years in jail. Police raids on abortion clinics have also become increasingly routine, and authorities often take thousands of medical files of women, exposing their private medical histories to the community.

Of course, these risks are problematic in a number of ways. Although anecdotal, I spoke with an upper middle-class woman who openly admitted to having two abortions, and the ease, safety, and relative security she had in the process. Thus, she had a far greater sense of health and safety in her procedures than poorer women would, a fact she herself was cognizant of. And by her own admission, she was not proud of the fact, yet was also aware that, given where she was in life and the issues she confronted when she had both abortions, they were probably the best choice for her and for her family (she later had children, once her personal and professional life had settled down and she was older). Yet even she, like poorer women, faced the very real risk of serving up to three years in prison, merely for trying to control some sense of autonomy with regards to her own body. And though the wealthy women could face prison as well, the likelihood that personal connections, wealth, and a skewed legal system treats them better than the poor reveals that even that risk is unequal along class lines. All the while, the illegality of abortion fails to curb the practice, even while hundreds of thousands have died from it due to their inability to secure safe, healthy options in exercising control over their bodies, their lives, their futures, and, oftentimes, the futures of their eventual families.

And again, this is in a country that is not as restrictive on abortion as other countries in Latin America. When those who support reproductive freedom in the US comment that criminalization does not eliminate a practice, they aren’t just speaking philosophically. There are far too many examples throughout the hemisphere that reveal what happens when governments impinge upon women’s freedoms. What happens to women in Brazil is, sadly, just another reminder of that reality.

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About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
This entry was posted in Abortion, Brazil, Gender and Sexuality, Legal Issues in Latin America, Women's Movements & Issues, Women's Rights. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Consequences of Criminalizing Abortion – The Brazilian Case

  1. Excellent article – spot on!

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