Brazilian presidential candidates remain silent on abortion

With the election just days away, the tragedy of illegal procedures is failing to trigger public debate

Pro-choice activists at a rally in Brazil.
Pro-choice activists at a rally in Brazil.

With just days to go before Brazil’s presidential elections, the issue of abortion remains conspicuously absent from the political debate.

Yet it is far from a minor problem: clandestine procedures claim thousands of lives every year and leave painful physical and psychological effects on many more women in a country where pregnancy terminations are severely restricted.

Between 685,334 and 856,668 women underwent backstreet abortions last year, according to preliminary data obtained by researchers Mario Monteiro and Leila Adesse.

But studies fail to reveal how many of these illegal abortions ended in death, since it is nearly impossible to extract reliable information from an underworld characterized by a complete lack of transparency. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that one Brazilian woman dies every two days from complications arising from clandestine abortions.

One out of every five Brazilian women under 40 has had an abortion

The recent cases of Elizângela Barbosa, 32, and Jandira Magdalena dos Santos Cruz, 27, are symptomatic of the fact that abortion is a social taboo in Brazil, above and beyond a public health problem.

On August 26, Jandira, who was almost four months pregnant, left her home in Campo Grande, in Rio de Janeiro, in the company of her ex-husband to obtain an illegal abortion. Her charred remains were found the next day inside a car not far from her house.

Preliminary investigations suggest that Jandira died from the procedure, and that the individuals who performed it attempted to hide the crime by cutting off her limbs, pulling out her teeth and setting her body on fire to prevent identification.

“I cannot say that I feel rage, but I do feel indignation over the evil thing they did to her,” says Joyce Liane dos Santos, the victim’s sister. “Now all we want to do is give her a proper burial, which is tremendously hard because of the bureaucracy surrounding the burial of a body in that state.”

Between 685,334 and 856,668 women underwent backstreet pregnancy terminations last year 

Yet despite the tragedy, Joyce says she does not support the legalization of abortion in Brazil.

“I did not support my sister’s decision to have an abortion. Those situations could be avoided with greater oversight by the authorities and more outreach work to teach about birth control and planned parenthood, not through abortion,” says Joyce, who is a devout Evangelical Christian. According to her, Jandira “had strayed from the Church’s path.” A separated mother of two, she did clerical work and earned a little over $702 a month, enough to raise her two daughters, ages eight and 11, said her sister.

On Sunday, just 60 kilometers from Jandira’s home in Campo Grande, in a municipality called Niteroi, passers-by found the lifeless body of Elizângela Barbosa, a mother of three. A day earlier she had undergone a clandestine abortion that cost her 3,500 reales ($1,440). The autopsy found a plastic pipe inside her body and perforations in her uterus and intestine. Elizângela’s husband, who accompanied her to get the procedure, now faces criminal action for cooperating with the illegal abortion.

Yet despite the numerous arrests and heavy media coverage of both cases, no politician has said a word about them, much less publicly wondered about the motives that lead thousands of women to seek dangerous procedures.

The autopsy found a plastic pipe inside a victim’s body and perforations in her uterus and intestine

Faced with a vast Catholic and Evangelical majority, who together comprise 76 percent of Brazil’s population, political parties are choosing to look the other way and stay out of an issue that could endanger their chances of victory at the polls.

Yet clandestine abortions are a problem affecting “the average Brazilian woman,” according to a study by Debora Diniz, an anthropologist who lectures at Brasilia University. Her conclusions, published in 2010 and taken up by the WHO, show that one in every five women under 40 has had an abortion. That is 20 percent of all women of childbearing age.

“Abortion is a common thing in the reproductive life of Brazilian women,” explains Diniz. “Yet criminal laws threaten them with prison terms that rarely get enforced. If they were, there would be a lot of women in jail. Women find loopholes, but that does not take away from the seriousness of the situation, which is based on a great hypocrisy.”

Brazilian legislation bans abortion except for in the case of rape; when the mother’s life is in danger; or when the fetus suffers from severe deformities that are incompatible with life, such as anencephaly, where parts of the brain are missing.

Another recent study led by Debora Diniz concludes that many rape victims who seek legal abortions at public health centers find innumerable obstacles to getting recognized as real victims.

Rosângela Talib, a coordinator at non-profit group Católicas pelo Direito de Decidir (Catholics for the Right to Decide), which does not follow Rome’s predominant doctrine on this issue, says these deaths could be prevented.

“Criminalizing abortion pushes the poorest women into these tragic situations all too easily,” she says. “Wealthy women are less vulnerable because they can travel abroad or go to private clinics here in better conditions. We believe that abortion needs to be legalized because it is a public health issue.”

The researcher Leila Adesse says the greater the restrictions, the censorship and the silence surrounding abortion, the greater the chances of more tragedies like these recent ones occurring.

“How many more deaths will it take before decisions get made?” she wonders.

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