Argentina is much less religious than Brazil

Termination of pregnancy
Still a taboo in Brazil

Abortion: taboo in Brazil | Photo: Colourbox

Common in the past according to historians, abortion has been criminalized in Brazil since the 1940s. But illegality cannot prevent it, and the topic is still a taboo in Brazil, despite its discussion among women's rights activists.

Abortions in Brazil did not just start yesterday. "Texts by chroniclers and doctors from the 16th to the 18th centuries report on it," says the historian Mary del Priore, author of books such as História das mulheres no Brasil [History of Women in Brazil] or Histórias íntimas: sexualidade e erotismo na história do Brasil [Intimate Stories: Sexuality and Eroticism in the History of Brazil]. “Travelers in the country observed that herbs used for abortion, such as rue, were being sold on the streets of the cities. At that time, women induced vomiting and diarrhea in order to achieve an abortion, ”reports the historian.

It was not until the 1970s that abortion became an issue through the feminist movements in Brazil. From the shy beginnings back then, the discussion has developed little to this day, and abortion continues to be one of the great taboos in Brazilian society. “Starting with the fact that abortion is a criminal offense in Brazil, except in cases of rape, when the pregnancy poses a threat to the mother's life, and in the case of anencephaly of the fetus,” emphasizes the anthropologist Debora Diniz, professor at the Faculty of Law at the University of Brasília and researcher at Anis, Institute for Bioethics, Human Rights and Gender. “That is why many women who have had an illegal abortion are afraid to stand by it and prefer to remain silent,” she reports.

In addition, the anthropologist believes there are other reasons for not mentioning the topic: “In our country, patriarchal encrustations still apply. As if women were secondary and had no right to decide about their own bodies. In addition, the issue has always been addressed on a moral and religious level, regardless of the fact that Brazil is a secular state. For example, there is a massive presence of religion in the media as well as in Congress so that only a single view of it is spread. This creates an extremely conservative climate, and few parliamentarians put it on the agenda for fear of losing votes. "

Rumors and humiliations

A look at Brazilian history helps shed some light on the matter. According to Mary del Priore, the Catholic Church in Brazil showed a certain tolerance of abortion well into the 19th century. “Believing that the soul would not develop in the male fetus until 40 days after conception and in the female 80 days, abortion was neither a crime nor a sin for the religious scholars of the time, as long as it happened before 'the soul entered' ", she tells. "However, things got complicated when the suspicion arose that the abortion resulted from an extramarital relationship."

In the early 20th century, the way birth control was handled became a national concern, and abortions became the focus of the authorities. “The birth rate was no longer just important for the conservation of the species, but also for that of Brazilian society. From then on, medicine and politics went hand in hand in establishing norms for reproductive behavior, ”continues the historian.

The role of the woman

Proof of this is that in the 1930s the idea of ​​the need for social cohesion to strengthen the Brazilian fatherland took off. “This claim resulted in a family model that outlawed any threat to the existing order - immorality, sensuality, idleness. The population suspected of these crimes was subject to reprisals. A woman belonged outside the home to work, but to the house with the children. It was no longer a question of controlling the size of a family, but of maintaining it, of preventing its breakdown and the associated consequences: alcoholism, delinquency, crime, ”explains del Priore.

In this context, from 1940 onwards, the Penal Code provided for a prison sentence of one to three years for women who had their pregnancy interrupted, except in cases of rape or danger to the mother's life, called "so-called 'unpunished' offenses" she the historian. "Despite the legal situation, only a few women have actually been convicted of voluntary abortion, but most have been victims of social reprisals: police investigations at home, questioning of relatives and neighbors, rumors and humiliation."

Broad lack of understanding

For the psychoanalyst Maria Rita Kehl, Brazilian women still suffer from similar condemnations today. “It's not about being in favor of abortion. This is nobody. Abortion is always a last resort for an unwanted pregnancy, but here the drama is intensified by the illegality, the malice of the moralists and a broad lack of understanding, ”emphasizes Kehl. “The discussion must also be about public health care for poorer sections of the population. Middle-class girls and above pay a lot of money for abortions in private clinics without priests and judges spreading their misery in the papers, ”adds the psychoanalyst.

A position that Debora Diniz endorses. The National Abortion Report, prepared by her and the sociologist Marcelo Medeiros in 2010, shows that one in five Brazilian women between the ages of 18 and 39 has already attempted or achieved an abortion. In addition, women who have illegal abortions are mostly black or poor, less educated, followers of one of the Christian religions, have a stable relationship and already have children. “A woman who hasn't had an abortion knows at least one who did,” she says. "Unless the issue is looked at from a public health perspective, the discussion will stand still and women will continue to die," she concludes.


Ana Paula Orlandi studied journalism at the University of PUC-MG, worked among other things as an editor of the "Folha de S. Paulo" and in publications of the publishers Abril and Trip - always in the areas of culture and society. She is co-director of the documentary “Soberano” and currently publishes books on civil society issues.

Translation: Michael Kegler
Copyright: Goethe-Institut Brazil
June 2015

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