When Culture Trumps Law | The Nation


When Culture Trumps Law

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By the time the tests and documentation the judge ordered came back from the police station and the hospital, it was June 30. I went with Lila and Douraci Vieira dos Santos, the head of the government commission on women, to meet Adriana at the bus stop and bring her to the hospital. Adriana came from tutoring students in her home and planned to go right back to teaching as soon as they set a date for her abortion. She was poised and steady next to me on the green couch in the bare white room, Lila on her left clutching the blue plastic folder of documents. Having the right documents takes on a certain urgency in a hospital where reported abortion protocol changes from one day to the next, and in a country where without proof of rape or threat to maternal health, victims and doctors who carry out abortions can be imprisoned for as long as three years.

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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...

Hospital director Eduardo Sergio swept in and said the fetus was 722 grams, too heavy to abort. The Ministry of Health recommends against aborting fetuses above 500 grams. After exceeding this weight, an aborted fetus is likely to come out breathing on its own, in which case the hospital is legally bound to do everything in its power to keep the premature baby alive. Though Douraci and Lila had begun putting together funding to fly Adriana to a hospital in another city, even doctors in Recife and São Paulo said it was too late to carry out an abortion. Adriana crumpled, almost imperceptibly, but she was sitting next to me and I could feel her shaking. She wrapped her arms around her stomach and spoke, audibly but quietly. "I don't want this inside of me. Why did you have to grow? I didn't want you to grow."

No single person stopped Adriana from having an abortion to which she was legally entitled. Adriana was forced to give birth to her rapist's child because of backs turned and services denied or delayed that together pushed the abortion off until it was too late. Between June 11 and June 30, Adriana and a representative from the center went to the hospital five times, the police station five times and the public defender's office three times. "There's an excuse in every case," Lila explained dryly, on the day the hospital staff announced that it would take a month to produce the results of a medical exam needed to show evidence of rape, and the policemen were on lunch break well into the afternoon.

Adrienne Germain, president of the International Women's Health Coalition, traces the problem to Brazil's restrictive abortion laws and lack of infrastructure for enforcing the legal exceptions that do exist. "Most people perceive, in Brazil and elsewhere, that abortion is illegal," Germain said. "But if it's legal for any reason, it must be provided safely. Every medical institution should provide training; every site should have equipment and personnel to provide a safe procedure."

In João Pessoa, not all professionals know the law, and those who do know don't necessarily follow it. When Douraci went to Cândida Vargas hospital asking for documentation of the protocol that limits abortions to twelve weeks, Dr. Sergio told her the standard they followed was twenty-one to twenty-two weeks, not twelve. Adriana had been eligible for an abortion the day she set foot in the hospital.

As director of the maternity hospital, Dr. Sergio has overseen abortion services at Cândida Vargas since 2005, when city government responded to pressure from the local women's movement to incorporate abortion services into João Pessoa's public healthcare system. Until then, women like Adriana could go to a private clinic or try to find care in another city. Dr. Sergio told me he wasn't at the hospital when Adriana first arrived. If he'd been there, he said, he would have done the abortion right away, since doctors have to "be careful that our social and religious values don't interfere with our process of attending to women." Douraci insists that whether or not Dr. Sergio knew about Adriana's situation during her first visit to the hospital, she discussed the case on the phone with him that same week, when Adriana was less than twenty-two weeks pregnant and still within the recommended timeline for an abortion.

Adriana's case may seem to come down to technicalities like weeks and weight. But the cultural attitude toward abortion in Brazil is more deeply ingrained--and harder to change--than laws and numbers. The majority of abortions in Brazil are performed under illegal, unsafe conditions. Of the 1 million to 2 million Brazilian women who receive clandestine abortions annually, 250,000 end up in hospitals with complications resulting from the procedure. Reproductive rights activists had hoped that Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the leftist president elected in 2002, would introduce more progressive policies regarding women. In May 2007--a week after Mexico City legalized abortion through the third month of pregnancy--Lula identified illegal abortion as a public health concern because so many women die each year from them. Public health minister José Gomes Temporão questioned Brazil's conservative abortion law, particularly the legislated imprisonment of women who seek illegal abortions, and called for a national referendum on the issue. But in July 2008 a proposed bill to legalize abortion, on the table for seventeen years, was voted down by Congress, 57-4. Lula has appointed seven of Brazil's eleven Supreme Court justices. His most recent appointment, Carlos Alberto Menezes Direito, openly defends the notion of life beginning at conception, allying himself with at least three of Lula's six other appointments known for antichoice rulings.

Sixty-nine years after an amendment to the penal code made abortion legal in cases of rape, five of Brazil's twenty-six states don't have a facility that provides abortions. Even facilities designated for female victims of violence don't always support women's decisions. In 1985, Brazil established a network of all-female police stations designed to improve care for victims of rape and domestic violence. João Pessoa was the third city in the nation to open such a station, called a delegacia da mulher. Since Bayeux is too small to receive government funds for an all-female police station, Regina and Lila brought Adriana to the delegacia in João Pessoa. Though delegacias were designed as safe spaces for women to report crimes, Regina reported to her colleagues that "when they [delegacia policewomen] learned it was a case of rape and abortion, they didn't want to listen to what we had to say." Adriana then went to the police station in Bayeux, where she faced a line of policemen at the door, alerted to the case by their colleagues in João Pessoa and already prepared to turn her away.

Each doctor who examined Adriana told her to have the child. Finally she asked one of them, "And if you were in my place? What would you do?" The doctor didn't answer. He left the room.

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