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As Women Die from Illegal Abortions in Brazil, Presidential Candidates Remain Silent

More than 200,000 Brazilian women go to hospitals annually with complications following abortions. Many of them die and many others don't seek help at all, fearing arrest.
Photo via AP/Eraldo Peres

In late August, a 27-year-old woman named Jandira dos Santos Cruz went to a bus station in Rio de Janeiro and got into a stranger's car.

She was four months pregnant. Communicating via text, Cruz had arranged to meet a woman who would take her to a clinic for an illegal abortion, which would cost about $1,900.

Cruz wasn't seen alive again. Rio de Janeiro police confirmed Wednesday that a headless, charred torso recovered from the trunk of an abandoned car was identified as hers. A police spokesperson told VICE News that they suspect Cruz died during a botched abortion, and that her body was burned and dismembered to forestall identification.


While shocking, deaths like Cruz's aren't terribly rare in Brazil, where abortion is illegal except in cases of rape, anencephaly (a brain malformation caused by an embryonic defect), or when the mother's life is at risk. Another death occurred last Saturday, when Elizângela Barbosa, a 32-year-old mother of three, died following complications from an abortion in Niteroi. Doctors performing an autopsy found medical equipment in her womb.

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While illegal, abortion is pretty common. Ipas, a non-governmental organizationoriginally known as International Pregnancy Advisory Services, has produced research showing that between 800,000 and a million Brazilian women terminate pregnancies annually. The procedure is still taboo, however — and dangerous.

"When women go for abortions in Brazil, they know it won't ever be 100 percent safe," Bianca Puglia, a doula who knows friends who have had illegal abortions, told VICE News. "People never talk about it. They do it in secret."

This stigma compounds the danger of backstreet operations, according to Rosângela Talib, a coordinator with the organization Catholics for the Right to Choose.

"Abortion in Brazil is a serious public health problem, and should be treated as such," Talib told VICE News. "Look at these two recent cases. Unsafe, illegal abortion causes the deaths of so many women."


Figures from the Brazilian Ministry of Health indicate that more than 200,000 women go to hospitals every year with complications following abortions. Many of these women die — punctured wombs and infections are among the common causes of death — and many others don't seek help at all, fearing arrest. Brazil's Federal Council of Medicine says abortions are the fifth-highest cause of maternal mortality.

As with many restrictive laws, the degree of risk falls along class and race lines. Women who cannot afford to get an abortion, whether abroad or domestically, are disproportionately poor and black. Members of those groups also have limited access to contraception and sex education. Ipas notes that low-income Afro-Brazilian women die from abortions at three times the rate of white women.

Dr. Leila Adesse, a former director of Ipas Brazil who now runs a women's rights group called AADS (Affirmative Action in Human Rights and Health), believes that access to early terminations would prevent many deaths.

"Women try to find other ways, to find money. They try pills or teas," Adesse told VICE News. "Time passes, and the pregnancy grows so late that the risk is very high."

"There is a period before 12 weeks that is much less dangerous, during which there is no evidence of life in the fetus," she added. "The law brings these deaths."

So why aren't Brazil's women clamoring for decriminalization? Why, in a presidential race that appears so progressive — two left-leaning women, both former activists, competing to lead the world's seventh largest economy — have incumbent President Dilma Rousseff and challenger Marina Silva remained silent on something that kills so many women?


"Abortion is such a taboo in Brazil," the political scientist David Fleischer told VICE News. "There's no political advantage to either of them in mentioning it. There's this unspoken agreement not to bring it up."

With an overwhelmingly Catholic population and evangelical churches growing rapidly, Brazil is arguably becoming more socially conservative, according to University of Brasilia bioethics professor Debora Diniz.

"This overlapping between a Catholic past and an evangelical future is creating a growing power against women's rights," she told VICE News.

Moreover, Rousseff and Silva need to win over not only religious voters, but also congressional power blocks that will allow them to govern effectively if elected.

Rousseff described herself as agnostic in a 2007 magazine interview, and indicated around the same time that she supported abortion liberalization. But she learned ahead of her 2010 presidential campaign how much pressure religious groups can exert, and backtracked. A Sao Paulo diocese had even dubbed her "the candidate of death."

"She had to promise publicly she wouldn't authorize any abortion legalization," Talib said.

Adesse pointed out that it was during Rousseff's administration that Brazil's Supreme Court expanded legal abortion to include fetuses with anencephaly.

"Rousseff probably helped behind the scenes," she said. "Silva is much more worrying. She will be against everything. Not just abortion, but stem cell programs and sexual education."


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Silva, a former rubber tapper and environmentalist who has recast herself as a fiscal hawk, was the vice-presidential running mate of Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB) presidential candidate Eduardo Campos, and replaced him after his death in an August plane crash. Some regard her Pentecostal Christianity as an odd fit within the PSB, which is one of Brazil's more liberal parties.

"She has already started to show that she will be oriented by the church," Adesse said, alluding to Silva's hastily amended line in the party manifesto that had originally appeared to support gay marriage. It was downscaled to refer to civil unions. Critics declared it proof that Silva would be in thrall to Brazil's evangelical lobby as president.

Silva is personally against abortion, but has said she would back a public referendum on the issue. Abortion is so stigmatized, however, that feminists in Brazil believe a vote would be unlikely to change anything.

According to a 2010 study by Diniz, one in five Brazilian women of child-bearing age have had an abortion — but polls indicate that 79 percent of Brazilians oppose its decriminalization.

Jaime Ferreira, vice-president of the group Brazil Without Abortion, told VICE News that Brazilians are happy with the status quo.

"These deaths would still happen if abortion was legalized. Safe abortion doesn't exist," he said. "What the state needs to do is punish and shut down clinics."


Diniz doesn't think it's so simple. Polls typically frame the issue as a moral choice, and women are conditioned by society to feel deeply ashamed of abortion. The stigma is such that people are reluctant to give the "wrong" answer, even anonymously. Diniz herself is even wary of emphasizing abortion as a campaign issue, fearful that doing so would force Rousseff and Silva to burnish their conservative credentials as they woo religious voters.

"It's shameful that they are so silent, but honestly I'm not sure if we should push them," she said. "It's very possible they would say, 'Okay, we need more restrictive laws against illegal clinics to prevent things like this.' "

An organization based in the Netherlands called Women on Waves presents an alternative. It mails the abortion pills mifepristone and misoprostol to women who live in countries where terminations are illegal. Rebecca Gomperts, the group's director, told VICE News that she receives about 35 emails from Brazilian women daily.

"The situation is really dire," Gomperts said. Her packages are frequently held up at customs or stolen.

Even so, organizations like Gomperts's might offer the best option for Brazilian women.

"You have treated me in this worst time of my life, you should know that you are beautiful and bright," read one of several thank you letters from Brazilian women that Gomperts shared with VICE News. "Know that you guys save lives."

Follow Lucy Jordan on Twitter: @lucyjord