A group of politicians from the bancada evangelica (the evangelical lobby) have declared war on female reproductive rights in Brazil. Among them is Jorge Tadeu Mudalen of the House of Representatives, who recently modified a proposed constitutional amendment (PEC 181) to include a clause that would make abortion illegal in all cases. The bancada is a group of ultra-conservative, evangelical politicians on a moral crusade against progressive values.
There are currently 75 elected deputies and 3 senators who make up the evangelical lobby – more than there has ever been in Brazilian history, and these politicians have extreme moral stances. It does not come as a surprise then, that they tend to be aggressively anti-abortion, and that Mudalen described [abortion] as an abominable crime against the family and life itself before he proposed PEC 181.
Disadvantaged women suffer the most
Abortion laws in Brazil are currently extremely restrictive. Abortion is only legal in the case of rape, anencephaly, and when a woman’s life is at risk.
Doctors working for the Sistema Único de Saúde (SUS), Brazil’s public health system, have been reported to turn away rape victims, claiming to find discrepancies between the stories they are told, and police reports that the woman is lying. Additionally, those who most depend on the SUS for abortions are disadvantaged women who come from poorer communities, have lower levels of education, and are often black.
A wealthy woman from the neighborhoods of Leblon (in Rio de Janeiro) or Morumbi (in São Paulo) who is turned away from the SUS, or who wants to abort for other reasons not considered strictly legal, has other options. Money speaks volumes in Brazil and individuals with enough always find a professional in a private clinic who will perform an abortion. There is also the possibility of travelling to Uruguay, Cuba, or the United States where the procedure is legal.
Bianca Cardoso, coordinator of online feminist collective Blogueiras Feministas, asserts: “If you have money, you can go abroad or find a private doctor that’s willing to carry out the procedure, but for poor women, the only options are turning to people without medical experience and without adequate equipment.”
For a disadvantaged woman from the neighborhoods of Acari (in Rio de Janeiro) or Lajeado (in São Paulo) therefore, the only option is often dangerous clandestine abortions, like in the case of Elizangela Barbosa, 32, who died in 2014 after a botched abortion by an unqualified practitioner perforated her uterus and intestine. Elizangela, a housewife from a poor community in Rio de Janeiro, already had three children but did not have the resources to raise a fourth.
Further, these clandestine clinics are often operated by criminal gangs, evident in the case of Jandira Magdalena dos Santos. Also from a poor district in Rio de Janeiro and lacking the resources to raise another child, she opted for a black-market abortion. After suffering fatal complications, the local gang that organized her procedure mutilated and dismembered her corpse so the incident could not be traced back to them.
Both Jandira and Elizangela are among the estimated 500,000 women who undergo clandestine abortions annually in Brazil, of which 200,000 end in complications and 500 in death, regardless of criminal law which declares illegal abortion a crime punishable by up to 3 years in prison.
What is the PEC 181 and how would it affect women?
PEC 181 is what feminists call the “Trojan horse” because it was originally a move to extend maternity leave for women in the case of premature births, an undoubtedly positive development.
However, male evangelist politicians later voted to include an amendment to Article 1 that protects life from the moment of conception. The inclusion of this amendment does not criminalize abortion itself, but paves the way for legal interpretations of the constitution that would make abortion completely illegal.
Cardoso claims “this will impact directly on the lives of numerous women that suffer sexual violence, unwanted pregnancy or anencephaly, and in most cases, it’s disadvantaged women who are most at risk.” Disadvantaged women, therefore, could once again be expected to suffer the most if PEC 181 is enacted into law.
If abortion is pushed completely underground, then the practice would continue, but doctors would assume a law-enforcer role, and be forced to breach ethical code to report suspected cases they encounter to the state (which already occurs in Brazil, but would no doubt worsen in such a scenario).
Innumerable women would end up helpless after their dangerous attempts to abort fail, but due to fear of legal repercussions, are unable to seek medical attention to save their lives.
The case of El Salvador shows how poor women are affected when a full abortion ban is in place. Researcher Michelle Oberman examined cases where women who suffered side effects from botched clandestine abortions sought medical assistance but were later reported by their doctors.
Oberman found that it was not the personal beliefs of the doctor that most determined if they would report a patient to the police, but the type of hospital the women were treated at. She researched 129 abortion prosecutions and discovered that they were all initiated by doctors in public hospitals. Not a single complaint from a private clinic was found.
If PEC 181 is enacted into law in Brazil, a landscape where rich women can travel or access abortions if they pay the price and poor women are criminalized is the most likely outcome.
Approval of the amendment by both chambers of Congress is currently pending due to more urgent political crises that have impeded its progression, but PEC 181 is expected to be voted upon in the coming months. In the meantime, the fight must go on for women both inside and out of Brazil to reclaim their bodies.