The news report described her as an anonymous 31-year-old woman. The subheading read: “Case happened in Bom Jesus do Norte” – or Good Jesus of the North. From what we know, she was the first woman to die from a clandestine abortion in Brazil during the coronavirus pandemic. The nameless woman “was two months pregnant,” according to her husband. Twice she sought help in spaces of death, at unsafe abortion houses. She tried a hose, potassium permanganate, syringes. She died of cardiac arrest. Why did she persist? We do not know, nor do her innermost reasons matter. It is enough to know that she was a woman determined not to be forced into maternity during the pandemic.
The pandemic killed her. Cause and effect can be debated in this narrative, that is true. Her death was not from Covid-19, but from the policies that rule women’s bodies as if they were material to be controlled by criminal law. The anonymous woman died like the thousands of women in Latin America who risked unsafe abortion practices in the 1970s and 1980s, before misoprostol (Cytotec) began circulating clandestinely as an abortion pill. The lockdown imposed by the pandemic has increased the barriers that keep poor women from accessing clandestine abortion drugs. It is not by chance that the anonymous woman bled to death; her wounded uterus is not allegorical. Spaces of death make some bodies bleed, while other bodies protect themselves from the pandemic far from the threats of the virus or penal code.
“Necropolitics” has become an imperative term for describing how the pandemic affects some bodies and not others. The word was coined by an author who survived the effects of necropolitics on racism, Achille Mbembe, a Cameroonian philosopher and political scientist. Necropolitics destroys bodies, abandoning them to spaces of death. Inhabiting spaces of death is not an individual choice but an exploitative tactic employed by the powers that regulate inequalities. As is the case with the mass incarceration of Black and Latino populations in the United States. And with every woman who turns to an unsafe, clandestine abortion clinic during the pandemic. The anonymous woman was the victim of patriarchal necropolitics, which uses criminal law to persecute, punish and kill women.
We should question the code on this woman’s death certificate. The International Classification of Diseases (ICD) summarizes the causes of death. Neither ICD I46, “cardiac arrest,” nor O06, “unspecified abortion,” explain what the anonymous woman died of. This manual of diseases should offer more complex numbers, combining U07.1, “Covid-19,” with Z59.6, for deaths related to “low income.” The anonymous woman died because she was poor, because she was surviving the pandemic in a body branded by the racist patriarchy of the Americas – this disease code would need to express the multiple intersectionalities of inequalities. She died because she lives in the region that most criminalizes abortion in the world; she died of the Covid-19 pandemic, because stay-at-home rules made it even harder for her to access a safe clandestine abortion.
Patriarchal necropolitics knows no borders. In Romania, only 11 of the country’s 280 public hospitals provided abortions as part of essential health care during the pandemic. The pandemic has become a means of restricting reproductive rights without identifying it as a political battle; stay-at-home orders, the risk of contagion in public places, defining what does or does not constitute an emergency health need – are enough to do the job. Equally tragic as the death of the anonymous woman in Brazil, was the pilgrimage of a Polish woman who, after unsuccessfully taking clandestine abortive pills, drove to Germany to catch a flight to England, sleeping in her vehicle on the way. Exhausted, she had a car accident and was hospitalized. By the time she finally got to the clinic in England, the pregnancy was two days over the legal limit under British law. Now she is suffering intense mental anguish because she has been forced to remain pregnant.
The anonymous Brazilian died because criminal law intersected with the Covid-19 pandemic. The anonymous Polish woman is in serious emotional distress for the same reason. It is no coincidence that both are surviving the most authoritarian political regimes on the planet. These women have been ravaged by the patriarchy, which turns their bodies into matter to be harassed and which wields necropolitics as a tactic for exterminating vulnerable women. There would be no death, bleeding or suffering if abortion were recognized for what it is: a medical necessity.
Debora Diniz is a Brazilian anthropologist and researcher at Brown University.
Giselle Carino is an Argentinian political scientist and IPPF/WHR director.