When Culture Trumps Law | The Nation


When Culture Trumps Law

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Emma Sokoloff-Rubin
Emma Sokoloff-Rubin is a sophomore at Yale University and an associate editor of The Yale Globalist. Research support...

In November, Adriana gave birth to a child she never wanted and spent two months fighting not to have. The first time Adriana was raped, on January 29, 2008, a stranger forced her into his car and drove to a parking lot near the airport in João Pessoa, the capital of the state of Paraíba in northeast Brazil. The stranger's gang rented a house on her street. The second time, he drove a different car and threatened to go after her family if she told anyone what had happened.

Adriana, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, stayed inside her home for four months. Each day, her attacker passed by the window, holding two pointed fingers to his head to remind her of what she stood to lose. When Adriana, 26 and a virgin before she was raped, realized she was pregnant, she knew she wanted an abortion, but she didn't dare ask anyone in her family for help. She knew her evangelical father, in whose house she lived, would tell her to have the child, and that her mother would be ashamed. So in early June, when the gang finally left the house on her street and moved on, Adriana went to the local public hospital.

Under Brazil's penal code, abortion is a crime except in cases of rape or direct threat to the mother's life. When Adriana went to the public maternity hospital, Instituto Cândida Vargas, on June 10, she explained that she had been raped, estimated that she was nineteen weeks pregnant and asked for an abortion. The receptionist sent her to the hospital psychologist, who told her that women have a responsibility to have children. The doctor held up the stethoscope so she could hear the baby's heartbeat, told her the hospital only does abortions until twelve weeks and sent her away.

Adriana's case received far less attention than that of the 9-year-old girl who received an abortion in Recife, a nearby city in the state of Pernambuco. In early March, the Catholic Church excommunicated two doctors for performing the abortion, which fell under both exceptions to the penal code: the girl had been raped by her stepfather, and her hips were too narrow to safely give birth to the twins she was carrying. (Following an international uproar, the Church withdrew the excommunication.) The doctors agreed to the procedure, but in an interview on Brazilian national television the next day, Archbishop José Cardoso Sobrinho of Recife announced that when government laws and the "law of God" conflict, "the human law has no value."

Adriana knows what it means for a law to lose its meaning.

Adriana didn't know that the Brazilian Ministry of Health's recommended limit for abortions--the one cited in hospital policy--was twenty-two weeks, not twelve. She didn't know the law entitled her to an abortion and required the public hospital to perform it. She didn't know that within the past two years, João Pessoa, ten minutes from her house in Bayeux, a city of 92,000, established a government commission on women and opened a domestic violence center. Opposition to abortion in Brazil, the nation with the largest Roman Catholic population in the world and a growing evangelical movement, disproportionately affects women who don't have money for private abortion clinics or a sense of entitlement to services from public institutions. Adriana might have given up if a nurse hadn't suggested she visit a local feminist organization called Cunhã. Cunhã staff immediately brought her to the dignified purple-and-white house in the center of João Pessoa, where the government-funded domestic violence center opened in September 2007.

When Adriana arrived at the center in June, having been turned away by the hospital, it looked as if the law was one thing she had on her side. Within a few hours a team of dynamic lawyers, psychologists and other staff members decided that Adriana would go to the police station and report the rape, and someone would go with her. She would find a lawyer and collect the necessary paperwork. She would go back to the hospital and demand an ultrasound. And she would bring this information to a judge, who would issue an order for the abortion to which she was legally entitled.

Regina Alves, a psychologist at the center, insists that when it comes to working with a victim of violence, "what matters is what she says." Though Adriana arrived at the center without an ultrasound or proof that she had been raped, the staff immediately contacted hospitals in nearby cities to find out their abortion policies. Lila de Oliveira, a tall and outspoken social worker from the center, stood beside Adriana through weeks of testing and waiting. Adriana and Lila went to the public defender's office to ask a judge to intervene, then started putting together a file with an HIV test, a medical report and a police notice, hoping the evangelical judge put in charge of Adriana's case would order the hospital to carry out an abortion.

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