What It Is Like To Get An Abortion In Brazil, One Of The Most Restrictive Countries In The World
The American pro-life movement is having a moment.
Republican victories in state legislatures and mounting public disgust over late-term abortions like those performed by Philadelphia abortionist Kermit Gosnell have given new momentum to anti-abortion activists.
Pro-lifers are now seizing on the rare opportunity to dislodge entrenched positions in the abortion war, and push through new regulations and laws aimed at restricting access to abortion.
While the stated purpose of these laws is to increase oversight of abortion practices, the ultimate goal is clear: Ban abortion altogether.
The success of the pro-life movement — particularly at the state level — raises an important question: What would happen if abortion was no longer legal in the United States?
Of course, America has been there. Before the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, women who wanted to terminate a pregnancy were forced to resort to back-alley clinics and dangerous home remedies.
But that was four decades ago.
For a more current look at what happens when abortion is severely restricted, we looked to Brazil, where abortion is illegal except in cases of rape, when the mother's life is in danger, and in the rare instances of anencephaly, a severe fetal anomaly in which the fetus lacks parts of the brain, leaving the infant with virtually no chance of survival.
In all other circumstances, abortion is criminalized — women who undergo abortions in Brazil are subject to one to three years in prison, and doctors can be punished with up to 20 years incarceration.
"Brazil and other countries in Latin America are really good examples of what it looks like when you set up barriers to access for abortions," said Mónica Arango, Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Center for Reproductive Rights.
"Unlike in the United States, most women in Brazil will never be able to get a legal abortion. Even in cases of rape and when the mother's life is in danger it is very difficult."
The reality of abortion in Brazil
Despite its illegality, Brazil's Ministry of Health estimates that about 1 million abortions are performed in the country annually, and that about 200,000 women are hospitalized every year from infections, vaginal bleeding, and other complications from illegal abortions. Other estimates put those numbers even higher.
A 2010 University of Brasilia study found that 1 in 5 Brazilian women under 40 — more than 5 million women overall, or about 22% of Brazil's population — had had at least one abortion. According to the report, at least 50% of those women were hospitalized for complications. Abortion is the fifth-highest cause of maternal mortality.
"Abortion is very common in Brazil," said Carmen Barroso, Regional Director of International Planned Parenthood Federation in the Western Hemisphere. "Although the law is very restrictive, women have powerful reasons for wanting to terminate a pregnancy and they go through all kind of loops to do it."
A disproportionate number of women who seek illegal abortions in Brazil are poor, young, and uneducated. According to the 2010 study, about 42% of women have their first abortion between the ages of 12 and 19, and about about 23% of women with less than a fourth-grade education have had an abortion.
"If you are older and you have money, there are private clinics that are reasonably good," Barroso said. "But if you are young and poor, you are really at the mercy of this terrible situation."