Illegal abortions claim lives of Brazilian women

RIO DE JANEIRO Nov 5 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - On Aug. 26, Jandira Magdalena dos Santos Cruz, 27, got into a white car at a bus station in the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. She was supposed to be taken to a clandestine abortion clinic to terminate a 16-week pregnancy. She never came home.

The next day, in a neighbouring district, police found the body of a woman inside the same car. She had been shot in the head, burned, and her teeth, arms and feet removed to make it harder for the body to be identified, according to police.

A month later, DNA testing confirmed the body as Cruz’s.

Rights advocates attribute Cruz’s death to the criminalisation of abortion in Brazil. About one million women go to clandestine clinics every year to illegally end unwanted pregnancies, often under dangerous conditions and at the hands of charlatans, according to women’s rights groups.

The search for clandestine abortions also exposes women to criminal organisations. Such a group killed Cruz, probably after medical complications they couldn’t resolve, according to Police Chief Hilton Pinho Alonso. Cruz paid 4,500 reais ($1,875) cash for the procedure, Alonso said.


Complications from unsafe abortions are the fifth leading cause of maternal deaths in Brazil, killing 2.8 women for every 100,000 live births, according to 2012 data from Brazil’s Health Ministry.

Although the government said the number of such deaths has been stable in the past few years, women’s rights groups said empirical and anecdotal evidence indicate an increase.

``The death of thousands of women due to clandestine abortions is seen as a criminal issue here, not a public health issue,’’ said Rosângela Talib, executive coordinator at Catholics for the Right to Decide.

``As long as we treat abortion as a crime, there will be no progress in the debate about reproductive rights, and more women will die.’’

Women in Brazil currently risk losing the few, and very restrictive, circumstances in which they can get an abortion legally. The country’s newly-elected Congress is the most conservative since 1964 and anti-abortion religious groups are gaining ground.

Two congressmen have proposed a congressional investigation into foreign-funded NGOs that promote reproductive rights in Brazil, saying they may be an accessory to the criminal act of abortion.

Feminist organization CFEMEA, which receives funding from the Ford Foundation to advocate for women’s rights, may be targeted if the probe is approved, said Joluzia Batista, a technical adviser at the NGO.

Brazil will ``severely backtrack’’ in efforts to legalise abortion for lack of support in Congress, said Batista, adding that the current law may be altered to become more restrictive.

By law, abortion is permitted only when a woman proves that she was raped, when the foetus has a fatal congenital brain disorder, or when the pregnancy threatens the life of the mother. But often women don’t know their rights, according to advocates.

Official data show that very few women actually undergo legal abortions. Last year, Brazil’s public health system performed just 1,523 legal abortions, according to the Health Ministry.

An independent study by the Social Medicine Institute at Rio de Janeiro’s State University showed that 155,000 women were admitted to public hospitals suffering from complications from self-induced abortions in 2013.

The National Abortion Survey, a 2010 survey by professors Debora Diniz and Marcelo Medeiros at the University of Brasilia found that one in every five Brazilian women had at least one abortion by the time they turned 40. (Reporting by Adriana Brasilero, Editing by Lisa Anderson)