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Brazil's Restrictions On Abortion May Get More Restrictive

The doctor's office is clean and white and comfortingly bland in an upscale neighborhood of Sao Paulo. We were given the address by a health professional who told us one of the doctors here gives safe abortions in a country where they are illegal.

The doctor agrees to speak on condition of anonymity after we prove we are not there to entrap him. He does not admit on tape that he terminates unwanted pregnancies. But he says openly he favors legalizing abortions.

"Most women who want an abortion in Brazil can't afford to come to a doctor," he says. "Women die from a perforated uterus, from general infections."

In Brazil, the law says a woman is only allowed to terminate her pregnancy if she was raped, if her health is in danger or if the child won't be able to survive outside the womb.

But in practice, 800,000 to 1 million women have illegal abortions every year, and some 250,000 end up in the hospital with complications, according to activists.

This is a two-tier system. The few who can afford it come to doctors like this one — the many who can't use other, riskier methods.

The Other Side Of Sao Paulo

We travel to one of the soulless, concrete satellite cities of Sao Paulo whose only attraction seems to be a train that takes commuters into Brazil's financial capital. The woman we meet is black and statuesque, with a wide smile and grave, watchful eyes.

At the time she found out she was pregnant, she was unemployed, her husband was barely making ends meet, and she already had two other children to take care of, one of them only 9 months old. It was a heart-wrenching decision, she says, for both her and her husband.

"It was a moment of despair," she says. "I told my godmother and she said she knew someone who could get me the medicine. I was afraid of what it would do to me. But I took it anyway."

The mixture she took was bought on the black market. She didn't know what was in it or how it would work. And she remained pregnant for 40 days after she drank it.

"Then suddenly I had a very severe hemorrhaging and I was taken to the hospital," she says. "They knew what I'd done and the hospital kept me there for three days. I had to have surgery."

The woman says she knows many other women who have had abortions. Most take at-home concoctions because they are cheaper than back-street abortions, costing only a few hundred dollars.

Still, the homemade medicines often lead to complications, and the woman tells me many of her friends have ended up in the hospital as well.

A Plan To Change The Law

There have been a number of controversial cases lately in Latin America. In Chile, an 11-year-old girl who was raped by her mother's partner was unable to terminate the pregnancy. In El Salvador, a sick woman was forced to carry her child to term.

Those who support abortion rights say that beyond these headline-grabbing stories, millions of women across the region are quietly seeking illegal and potentially fatal terminations.

"The majority of women who are at risk from abortions are black, poor, uneducated and live in the marginal neighborhoods," says Yury Puello Orozco, the director of the Catholics for the Right to Choose. "We estimate that 1 in 5 Brazilian women have had an insecure abortion. So we see this as an issue of public health."

Orozco says there is a push now in Brazil's Congress, led by powerful evangelical Christian and Catholic congressmen, to change the law as it stands. It's called the Unborn Statute, and if passed, it will grant rights to the fetus. Among its controversial articles is one that would force a rapist to provide child support for any offspring of his crime.

Ives Gandra da Silva Martins, a lawyer who consults for the group Brazil Without Abortion, helped author the proposed law. "It's a monumental hypocrisy to say because of a question of health it's OK to kill babies in their mothers' stomachs," he says, adding that even if the proposed law doesn't pass it's a victory that it has gotten this far.

"The fact that this law is being debated will raise people's consciousness of the absurdity of killing innocents," he adds.

In fact, polls show despite many women having abortions, a majority in Brazil are against legalizing it.

Back in the satellite city, the woman we interviewed agrees. She says despite her experience she is actually against abortion in principle.

"I love children and having the abortion caused a trauma," she says. "Until today, I suffer. I think about how old the child would be now, what it would look like."

Thinking it over, she says, "'Maybe the laws should be relaxed but not changed."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.
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