Abortion policy stirs up a storm in Brazil

For the majority of poor Brazilians who want an abortion, they are faced with two choices - go to a backstreet abortionist or take a chemical pill, both of which carry serious risks.

    Until now, abortion in Brazil was permitted only in certain cases

    Now, say the critics, there's a third: lie to your doctor.

    Abortion is only allowed in the case of rape or if the life of the mother is at risk, according to the 1940 Penal Code.

    But the Ministry of Health has issued a new directive removing the need for women to show a police report to a doctor in the case of rape, creating the inference that there is nothing to stop any woman going to a public hospital for an abortion.

    The move has sparked a fierce debate in a country with the largest Catholic population in the world.

    Furthermore, the directive makes clear that a doctor should not be punished by law if it is later revealed that the cause of pregnancy was not rape.

    Not enough

    The move was immediately challenged by the president of the Supreme Court as to whether it had any legal grounding.

    Minister Nelson Jobin says the directive is not enough and that it would have to require a judicial decision or a primary change in the law.

    The majority of Brazil's Catholics
    support abortion in many cases

    Also, this month [March], the national health board voted to approve abortion in the case of foetuses without brains.

    Half die at birth, 44% die within a week and only 1% survive three months or more.

    "A baby born without a brain is not a celebration of life, it is a ritual of death," Luis Roberto Barroso, of the Febrasgo, the Brazilian gynaecologists and obstetricians federation, said.

    "A woman will go through the motions of someone who is going to have a baby, but isn't going to have one. It's a psychological torture."

    There is strict opposition from the Catholic church, who remain adamantly opposed to abortion in any case.

    Illegal practice

    "We remember the sacrifice of Jesus, the innocent who was crucified but still today we have many innocents who are killed," Geraldo Majella Agnelo, the cardinal archbishop of Salvador at the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops, said on 20 March.

    But what is surprising is that the majority of Catholics in the country are in favour of abortion in many cases.

    "We want to help Catholics who are in favour of abortion not despite their faith, but in the name of faith"

    Maria Jose Rosado,
    Catholics for the Right to Decide

    The practice is illegal across the whole of Latin America - and in 40% of countries worldwide - but research by Catholics for the Right to Decide (CDD) shows that Brazil has the highest acceptance rate of abortion.

    Catholics for the Right to Decide launched a campaign for the legalisation of abortion in January as a question of public health and not of moral debate, at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

    "We are not animals. We are thinking beings, of wills and of choices. We want to help Catholics who are in favour of abortion not despite their faith, but in the name of faith," CDD's Maria Jose Rosado says.

    Church pressure

    Their survey shows that 82% are in favour of abortion in the case of the risk of death to the mother, 80% when there are serious defects in the foetus, and 67% agree in the case of rape.

    In the wider context of contraception, an extraordinary 97% approve of the use of mechanical barriers to prevent HIV/Aids, directly contradicting the official position of the Vatican.

    And almost three-quarters (71%) of Catholics in the survey are in favour of the availability of the morning-after pill for free.

    A popular alternative is to take
    the drug Cytotec costing $40

    Despite this, the morning-after pill has been banned in Rio de Janeiro after the mayor Cesar Maia bowed to pressure from the local church who regard it as "abortive".

    The cost of the prohibition of abortion can be measured in plain figures - 250,000 women are hospitalised every year after crude abortion attempts, costing the Brazilian public-health system $10 million.

    A popular alternative to a curiosa, or backstreet abortionist, is to take the drug Cytotec, available on the black market for around $40. But both methods carry dangers.

    Abortion is the fourth largest cause of death for women. It's conservatively estimated that one million are carried out every year.

    Sterilisation statistics

    Wilful infanticide also carries a term of up to six years in jail. A

    s a result, a large number of women - many in their teens and 20s - decide to opt for sterilisation.

    Many young women opt to get
    sterilised to avoid legal hassles

    Incredible as it may seem, one in two Brazilian women of childbearing age have been sterilised, according to the latest government figures.

    The operation is often carried out during the Caesarian section - causing the numbers of births performed this way to be artificially and unnecessarily inflated to one in three births, the highest in the world.

    By law, women must have had at least two children or be above 25 years of age to undergo the procedure but that is widely ignored.

    Many women's groups had high hopes for a change in the law when President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's government came to power in 2002.

    The Ministry of Health's directive is an indication, at the very least, of its intention.

    SOURCE: Aljazeera


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