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Brazil's ugly abortion reality lost in election noise

The issue of abortion in Brazail has been thrust into the spotlight by a presidential election in which the front-running candidate has been punished by religious voters for her past support for decriminalizing the procedure.
/ Source: Reuters

It was a little-noticed headline amid the daily crime, violence and accidents in Rio de Janeiro's rough outskirts — Adriana de Souza Queiroz, 26, dead after a clandestine abortion went wrong.

Queiroz, who scraped a living handing out pamphlets and was three or four months pregnant, last month became one of the some 300 Brazilian women who die each year after back street abortions.

The issue of abortion in the world's most populous Roman Catholic country has been thrust into the spotlight by a presidential election in which front-running candidate Dilma Rousseff has been punished by religious voters for her past support for decriminalizing the procedure.

Abortion rights groups have long argued the law does little to prevent abortions in Brazil and mostly hurts poor women who can't afford safer, expensive underground clinics.

The health ministry says that about one in seven Brazilian women under 40 have had at least one abortion and about a third of all pregnancies end in the procedure. That is in line with the rest of Latin America, which has among the world's highest abortion rates despite it being mostly illegal, and compares to about a fifth in the United States, where abortion is legal.

'Respect for life'
But with both Rousseff of the ruling Workers' Party and her opposition rival Jose Serra now vying ahead of the Oct. 31 runoff election to convince voters of their "respect for life" and opposition to decriminalization, reform may now be off the agenda for years.

When President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva came to power in 2003, many believed Brazil's strict abortion laws could be liberalized.

His Workers' Party has consistently supported expanded abortion rights and a bill to legalize abortions up to 12 weeks from conception was sent to Congress in 2005, but it was rejected and evangelical Christians have an increasingly powerful bloc in Congress, and in election campaigns.

Hounded by rumors that she favors complete legalization of abortions, Rousseff last week issued an open letter vowing not send to Congress any bill to decriminalize the procedure.

Abortions are only allowed in Brazil in cases of rape and when the mother's life is in danger, and sometimes not even then.

The campaign by evangelical and Roman Catholic leaders against Rousseff helped stop her short of winning the election in the Oct. 3 first round.

It could also trip her up in the runoff vote as recent polls show Serra gaining ground.

He has used images of pregnant women in his TV slots to show his "pro-life" credentials, and religious leaders are keeping up their attacks on Rousseff. One of Brazil's most popular evangelical leaders, Silas Malafaia, has appeared in Serra's commercial to endorse the candidate.

"Is abortion a question of public health? No," Malafaia said on his own recent program giving advice to voters. "God blessed Brazil. He can direct our country and we will vote with our conscience in those who represent our ideas."

Proponents of reform say Rousseff's trouble in the campaign is hampering discussion of the abortion issue.

"I think this debate could stir up old stigmas," said Leila Adesse, the country director of Ipas Brazil, a group that works to reduce abortion-related deaths. "None of us is promoting abortion, we just want it to be treated with dignity."

Sometimes, Adesse said, women who have just had abortions are handcuffed to their beds and charged with the crime that can carry up to 3 years in prison.

Abortion complications
Around 200,000 women are admitted to hospital with abortion complications each year, many with infections caused by using dirty implements, while others use burning chemicals and risky homemade potions.

The most common method is the ulcer drug misoprostol, better known by the brand name Cytotec, which the government banned in the early 1990s but which can obtained on the black market. Drug gangs in Rio's slums reportedly sell the drug, which induces miscarriage and often causes hemorrhaging, alongside cocaine.

"Without doubt there is a big problem, not only for women but for the unborn children that are killed by abortion," said Lenise Garcia, president of the Brazil Without Abortion group whose website gives advice on which candidates are "pro-life."

"The problem should be tackled through prevention."

Thomaz Gollop, an obstetrician who campaigns for abortion rights, said the overwhelmingly religious nature of the debate over abortion was an affront to Brazil's secular state.

"Abortion is an important cause of maternal mortality, which is linked to legislation that is completely out of date," he said. "The debate with society should be based on questions of public health rather than prejudices."

Those voicing support for more abortion rights are swimming against the tide of public opinion, however. A survey by the Datafolha polling firm this month found rejection of abortion at a record high with 71 percent of Brazilians wanting the law maintained and only 7 percent favoring decriminalization.

"Back street abortions are terrible. But it's up to people to take better care to make sure they don't get pregnant," said Rose Santos, a 33-year-old housekeeper in Rio de Janeiro who attends a Protestant church and is a Rousseff supporter. (Edited by Kieran Murray)