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When Culture Trumps Law | The Nation

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When Culture Trumps Law

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When I asked Rosana de Lucena, director of the domestic violence center, why so many officials stood in the way of an abortion, she responded that "they don't want to grapple with this fear"--the fear felt by women like Adriana, who face family members who don't believe in abortion, and by public officials concerned about their careers. It's one thing to choose to work at a domestic violence center, Rosana explained, and "another thing to work at a hospital where suddenly you're told you're dealing with violence against women." Doctors, in particular, fear prosecution. Without proof that the mother's life is on the line or that a rape occurred, carrying out an abortion in Brazil means committing a crime.

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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...

"There's a large gap between the law and the application of the law," notes Mayor Ricardo Coutinho, the first mayor to require the local maternity hospital to provide abortion services. As mayor, he says, it's easier to change the laws than to change how people are treated in public facilities. Even in cases where abortion is legal, "the medical professionals are very reluctant because there exists a kind of professional terrorism. There's a lot of pressure on them because of efforts to characterize them as baby killers, as murderers."

Dr. Sergio sees the case as unfortunate but inevitable. He knows it could have turned out differently, but in his view each decision was necessary to protect Adriana's safety and the hospital's reputation. I met with him during his overnight shift. Women in a mix of street clothes and hospital gowns lined up outside his office, and he continued to usher them in and out as he spoke, stopping his conversation with me only to help a woman off the examining table and explain why she needed to stay in the hospital overnight. He told me that as head of the hospital, he was responsible for carrying out an abortion if the doctor on duty refused to do so. I asked when he had carried out this procedure, but Dr. Sergio didn't answer directly and instead explained why the responsibility fell to him. "In the same way that these women were victims and still have their rights and their liberties," he told me, "I can't force someone to carry out a procedure he doesn't believe in from a religious or social standpoint."

Efforts to fully legalize abortion, and to obtain abortions in cases where the procedure is already legal, take place against a strong current of religious opposition. At the national level, mobilized religious groups in Brazil's Congress are pushing proposals to recognize fetuses for tax purposes and create a national Day of the Unborn. The staff of the domestic violence center in João Pessoa work with women from all sorts of religious backgrounds; in almost every case, they told me, religion shapes a woman's beliefs on abortion and the way she is treated at home and in public institutions. The Catholic Church has a firm stance on abortion: any woman who has an abortion, or any doctor who aids in the procedure, is automatically excommunicated. The case of the 9-year-old girl in Recife shows that this is not an empty threat.

While each staff member at the domestic violence center is deeply invested in individual cases, as a team they've learned to take a long view and focus on crafting a model for a public institution that treats people with dignity and respect for their choices. In April, the women who worked on Adriana's case will meet with feminist leaders in two northeastern states, Rio Grande do Norte and Pernambuco, to build a regional coalition out of their many local initiatives. This follows a history of strong women's rights activism in Brazil. Brazilian women were the first in Latin America to introduce abortion information into medical school curriculums and among the first to develop underground abortion networks for poor women. In partnership with Cunhã and the government commission on women, the domestic violence center in João Pessoa used Adriana's case to hold the hospital accountable for repeated attempts to stop women from having abortions. Based on a report they submitted to the Ministry of Health about Adriana's case, the ministry removed Dr. Sergio from his position as director of the hospital; but he didn't lose his place as an influential physician until another rape victim reported that she, too, had sought an abortion at Cândida Vargas and was turned away.

In Brazil, the public battle for abortion rights--the one that makes it into international newspapers--is a legal one. But the less visible battles are equally important. Cases like Adriana's are battles to make the law mean something to people on the ground, and the people waging them have taken on more than a single doctor who refuses to do an abortion. They also confront what Douraci calls "the inequalities, the power of machismo, the violence and the silence" that shape women's lives in João Pessoa and throughout Brazil. When I interviewed Douraci during the week that Adriana began prenatal care and newspapers reported that Congress voted against a bill to legalize abortion, she insisted that simply enacting new policies for women "does not further the debate on gender relations in those women's lives." That debate takes place outside state legislatures: in the waiting rooms of domestic violence centers and in the hallways of public hospitals, where what the law says doesn't correspond to what the doctors do. Legal rights are put to the test in these waiting rooms and hallways, where people fight to turn rights on paper into rights in reality.

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