Jandira Magdalena dos Santos vanished after having an illegal abortion on August 26. She could feel the danger as it approached. Her last text message to her husband Leandro Brito Reis read: “Honey, they asked me to turn off my phone, I’m panicking, pray for me!” Two hours after getting the message, Leandro sent one himself asking for news. There was no answer.
Jandira’s tragedy is another among the thousands of Brazilian women forced to rely on unsafe abortions because the Brazilian government forbids abortion.
One million abortions are performed every year in Brazil. In Latin America, 95% of the abortions are unsafe, which are defined as a procedure undertaken by an individual with no practice, ability or necessary knowledge, according to gynecologist, obstetrician and representative from the Group of Abortion Studies (GEA) Jefferson Drezett.
The Federal Council of Medicine already recognizes that risky abortions are the fifth most common cause of maternal deaths. Many of these women die or bear terrible aftereffects from them in their bodies.
Some of them were raped, but, even though Brazilian law allows abortions in that case, until the approval of a new piece of legislation in 2013 that mandates care in public hospitals, it was very difficult to have them performed by the public health care system. Without this new law, millions went unprotected, deprived of a basic right even after sexual abuse, something that affected especially poor women. The evangelical conservative caucus in Congress intends to revoke this legslation. Is it fair that Congress should even have that power?
I agree with jurist Ronald Dworkin in his book Life’s Dominion. He states that people wish to ban abortion because they understand there is some intrinsic value to life that must be preserved. However, that sacred value is interpreted differently by different people. It is perfectly possible that the decision to terminate a pregnancy should be made taking into account whether valuing life actually means going ahead with an undesired gestation with little ability to support the future child. It is not a decision the state should be making. This moral issue is best left to the person who will suffer its consequences in her body and mind: the woman.
The story of Marta (fictional name) speaks volumes. A 37-year-old poor woman with only basic education, single mother of three young children, abandoned by the kids’s parents, Marta was unemployed in 2010 when she decided in desperation terminate her pregnancy. She bought abortive pills for $125, money taken from her only source of income, her daughter’s alimony. She utilized the medication incorrectly, causing bleeding and sharp pain. Marta was taken to court for the crime of abortion, reported by the physician who cared for her, and signed a confession to get a conditional suspension of the suit.
Does the state know what this woman’s decision should have been in her circumstances?
Some will say that the historical tradition of a given society should take precedence. But that is the same tradition that, as individualist anarchist Maria Lacerda noted, enshrined the “miserable morals of colonels, cowards, and cretins,” condemning deviant women to the “doors of cheap prostitution, with its misery, brothels, humiliations, sickness in hospitals, and the common gutter.”
Jandira disappeared. It is possible that we will never know what happened. But we do know how to prevent other Jandiras from disappearing in the name of a false morality: let us take the state out of women’s bodies. If necessary, by direct action — Dutch NGO Women on Waves Foundation is working to offer abortion procedures on international waters to women who live in countries where they are still illegal.
We need fewer spaces of power to oppress women and individual autonomy so that they can control their own bodies and make important moral decisions by themselves. If not, Brazilian women will never be safe from state aggression and social stigma. Abortion must be legal. Now.
Translated into English by Erick Vasconcelos.