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Women's Health

Abortion, a Right Denied to Girls Raped in Brazil

Brazilian women demonstrated in São Paulo on Sept. 28, International Safe Abortion Day, which began to be celebrated in Latin America. The activists are promoting the campaign "Neither imprisoned, nor dead" against the repression of women's right to abortion, which affects even young girls who are entitled to this right by law. CREDIT: Rovena Rosa / Agência Brasil

Brazilian women demonstrated in São Paulo on Sept. 28, International Safe Abortion Day, which began to be celebrated in Latin America. The activists are promoting the campaign "Neither imprisoned, nor dead" against the repression of women's right to abortion, which affects even young girls who are entitled to this right by law. CREDIT: Rovena Rosa / Agência Brasil

RIO DE JANEIRO, Oct 31 2023 (IPS) - A total of 17,456 babies were born to girls aged 10 to 14 in Brazil in 2021. The annual figures are falling, but still reflect the plight of ruined childhoods and the failures of judges and doctors when it comes to the issue of abortion rights.

Data from the Information System on Live Births (Sinasc) of the Ministry of Health put the number of births to girls in this age group at 252,786 in the decade 2010-2019, compiled by the Feminist Health Network. That is an annual average of 25,278.

"This country does not take care of women. While cardiology has advanced a lot in Brazil, medicine dedicated to women, such as obstetrics and gynecology, remains stuck in the last century and resists updating. An example is the persistence of curettage, a practice abolished by the World Health Organization (WHO) more than 20 years ago." -- Helena Paro

This phenomenon has ceased to be invisible since 2020, when a string of scandals erupted involving girls prevented from having abortions by judges, hospitals and even authorities such as the then Minister of Women, Family and Human Rights, Damares Alves, during the government of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro (2019-2022).

In Brazil, abortion is legal in cases of rape, risk of death of the pregnant woman and anencephalic fetuses. It is also an unquestionable right of girls up to 14 years of age, since all of them are legally victims of rape and their abusers face sentences of eight to 15 years in prison.

But there were judges, even in the appeals courts, who ruled against the termination of pregnancy in girls as young as 10 or 11 years old.

At the base of this iniquity is the social criminalization of abortion, to which many religious people who identify “abortion as murder, as a repulsive crime” contribute, lamented Clara Wardi, technical advisor of the Feminist Studies and Advisory Center (Cfemea), based in Brasilia.

Religious morality infiltrates the State

“The stigma is strong, in the culture, in the family, even in schools. That is why girls are reluctant to choose abortion, even if it is legal. And to do it clandestinely is expensive and risky,” she told IPS from Petrópolis, the city near Rio de Janeiro where she lives.

Many doctors argue that they are “conscientious objectors” and refuse to carry out abortions, which forces the girls to go on a “pilgrimage” in search of respect for their rights in other hospitals and even in the courts.

In spite of everything, a Cfemea survey conducted since 2018 found a growing public opinion against the criminalization of abortion. To the question “Are you for or against the imprisonment of women who terminate their pregnancy?”, 59.3 percent said “against” in 2023, up from 51.8 percent in 2018.

Those in favor of imprisonment also increased, but less, from 26.7 percent to 28.1 percent, reflecting the ideological polarization during Bolsonaro’s administration, which caused the proportion of “undecideds”, those who answered “it depends on the circumstances”, to fall from 16.1 percent to 7.6 percent.

There are “institutional barriers” to legal abortion, an issue in which the State ceases to be secular by subordinating its services to religious morality. The most emblematic case is that of an 11-year-old girl pregnant for the second time in the northeastern state of Piauí, who in late 2022 was denied an abortion by a public hospital and by the justice system.

Taken to a public shelter, she gave birth to her second child in March 2023. In other words, the State acted to remove her from her family, deny her the legal abortion she demanded and force her to give birth, Wardi said.

Damares Alves, a radical evangelical Christian who was Minister of Women, Family and Human Rights (2019-2022) during the far-right government of Jair Bolsonaro, mobilized her officials to pressure young pregnant girls to desist from getting an abortion, which was legal in their case because they are recognized as victims of rape. CREDIT: Fabio Rodrigues-Pozzebom / Agência Brasil

Damares Alves, a radical evangelical Christian who was Minister of Women, Family and Human Rights (2019-2022) during the far-right government of Jair Bolsonaro, mobilized her officials to pressure young pregnant girls to desist from getting an abortion, which was legal in their case because they are recognized as victims of rape. CREDIT: Fabio Rodrigues-Pozzebom / Agência Brasil

 

Ignorance

All this occurs in the midst of “collective failures” of society itself, such as insufficient information on reproductive rights and the possibility of choice for women, especially girls. There is no choice without access to health services, she argued.

“The criminalization of abortion invalidates the legality of the three situations. It is necessary to get out the information that abortion is legal in Brazil and to train qualified personnel to offer the service, without the need for legal action to obtain access,” said Denise Mascarenha, executive coordinator of the group Catholics for Choice in Brazil.

The basic flaw is in the training of health workers, whether doctors, nurses or psychologists, who “do not recognize the violence involved in a pregnancy in girls under 14 years of age,” which has been present in the Penal Code all the way back to 1940, said Helena Paro, professor of gynecology and obstetrics at the Faculty of Medicine of the Federal University of Uberlândia.

Universities, she said, do not train doctors to take care of rape victims, but good teaching would not be enough, anyway, she added. There is a lack of experience in practical assistance to patients, with a focus on women’s human rights, said the physician specialized in gynecology and obstetrics.

In Brazil there are just over 60 medical centers offering legal abortion services – virtually nothing for a population of 203 million inhabitants in which women constitute a majority of 51.7 percent, she told IPS from Uberlândia, a city in the southern state of Minas Gerais.

Only about 2,000 legal abortions are performed each year in Brazil, where it is estimated that more than 400,000 illegal abortions are performed annually, resulting in many deaths as well as complications that overload hospitals.

 

Judge Rosa Weber seen passing her vote in defense of the decriminalization of abortion up to 12 weeks of gestation, in her last sessions as president of the Supreme Federal Court, before retiring on Oct. 2. CREDIT: Antonio Cruz / Agência Brasil

Judge Rosa Weber seen passing her vote in defense of the decriminalization of abortion up to 12 weeks of gestation, in her last sessions as president of the Supreme Federal Court, before retiring on Oct. 2. CREDIT: Antonio Cruz / Agência Brasil

 

Medical care that discriminates against women

“This country does not take care of women. While cardiology has advanced a lot in Brazil, medicine dedicated to women, such as obstetrics and gynecology, remains stuck in the last century and resists updating. An example is the persistence of curettage, a practice abolished by the World Health Organization (WHO) more than 20 years ago,” Paro commented.

She coordinates the Uberlândia Comprehensive Care Center for Victims of Sexual Assault (Nuavidas), opened in 2017 at her university hospital. Since 2021, the center has been offering abortion-related services via telemedicine, following an initial face-to-face consultation.

The COVID-19 pandemic prompted the online assistance, also facilitated by the efficacy of the abortion drug misoprostol, approved by the WHO and Brazilian health authorities.

Paro’s activities led to an attempt to disqualify her by the Regional Council of Medicine of Minas Gerais, which accuses her of using her knowledge “to commit crimes” and not for the well-being of patients.

“It’s all upside down,” the physician replied, arguing that she cares for the health of patients “based on scientific evidence” that the Council denies.

The councils, one national and 27 regional (in each of the states), regulate medical practice in the country and several of them acted unscientifically during the COVID-19 pandemic, by approving, for example, the use of ineffective drugs such as chloroquine.

A conservative offensive in Congress threatens to further restrict the right to abortion in Brazil, contrary to what is happening in Argentina, Colombia, Mexico and Uruguay, which have decriminalized abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy.

A 2007 bill, called the Statute of the Fetus, gained renewed momentum last year in the lower house of Congress, at the initiative of ultra-conservative lawmakers. Its approval would prohibit any abortion, guaranteeing the fetus all the rights of a human being, especially the right to life, from the moment of conception.

Other measures to criminalize abortions even in the restricted circumstances currently permitted are under parliamentary discussion.

To counteract this conservative offensive, Brazilian women’s rights movements launched the campaigns for decriminalization “Neither imprisoned nor dead” and “Girls, not mothers”, the latter of which is being carried out throughout Latin America.

Feminists are also celebrating the ruling of Judge Rosa Weber, who recorded her vote in favor of decriminalizing abortion up to the 12th week of pregnancy on Sept. 22, before leaving the presidency of the Supreme Federal Court and retiring 10 days later.

The highest court in the country, which has acted as a counterweight to the ultraconservative initiatives of the legislature and of the Bolsonaro administration, will ultimately decide whether to rule in favor of or against the legalization of abortion on any grounds up to 12 weeks.

Weber’s vote is in line with the demands of the feminist movement, especially with the strong, early contribution of black women, in advocating “reproductive justice as a tool for social transformations,” Wardi said.

“It is an important milestone in the fight for abortion rights in Brazil” and affirms “the legitimacy of the judiciary in ensuring women’s human rights,” Mascarenha said from São Paulo.

But the current circumstances are not very favorable to her argument, with a Congress dominated by conservative and ultra-conservative groups.

Also because the process within the Supreme Federal Court on the right to abortion is facing indefinite postponement since its new president, Luis Roberto Barroso, replaced Weber.

 
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