The Brazilian website, Gravidez Indesejada or Unwanted Pregnancy, is pink and white and has a stock image of a smiling woman who seems thrilled to take your call. But the site’s language has an urgency: “Do not waste any more time. To make your own choice in a difficult situation is your right!”
“Do not take UNNECESSARY RISKS,” it continues. “We have 20 years of experience in helping women with unwanted pregnancies. We can help you solve your problems quickly and safely; we want to remind you that right now every minute really counts.”
The website promises free personalized and confidential treatment and to answer any questions you have about drugs like Cytotec, the brand name for misoprostol, which can induce a miscarriage.
Abortion is illegal in Brazil, except in cases of rape, where the mother’s life is in danger, or when the fetus has a fatal brain defect. And even these strict conditions may change; a bill currently before Congress would outlaw abortion altogether. It should be no surprise, then, that four women, on average, die every day as the result of botched clandestine abortions. In this atmosphere, reliable advice is hard-to-come-by for pregnant women.
“We are the Women’s Association [Associação Mulher],” the site explains, “a non-profit organization with headquarters in several cities in Brazil and abroad. We help women with unwanted pregnancies by providing personalized care at a difficult time.”
Suspecting a trap—as nothing was said about specific help offered—myself and another reporter with Agência Pública began to investigate and scheduled a face-to-face appointment via the phone number on the website. A woman took my colleague’s information and told her she would only be informed of the address the day before the appointment. We both used our real names.
The center is located in old house located on a quiet street in a São Paulo suburb. We rang the bell and a woman in her 30s, who will call Maria, opened the door. After strolling past photos of popes, bishops, and saints that line the walls, Maria picked up a clipboard and started to ask my colleague for her personal data and about the baby’s gestational age. She said she was a volunteer and that a psychologist and her husband run the place.
I asked if the center is an NGO, a clinic, or connected to a church, and she replied they “do not embrace any flag.” After some pressing, she said they are “for life,” and my friend would be informed of all the risks of abortion and that it “is a path with no return.” She said they attend to three or four women a day, from sex workers to socialites.
“Everyone thinks that abortion is easy, you just take Cytotec, which has no consequences,” she told us. “But it has very serious consequences. Television does not reveal the mortality of abortion. Maybe the girl dies. We get told of this a lot.”
She said that many women arrive there with cash in hand, thinking that they will have an abortion, and leave furious when they realize it will not be possible.
The website does not provide a company name or number, but a search on the domain name reveals the name of a pro-life priest, Hélio Tadeu Luciano de Oliveira. On Father Helio’s Facebook page, he has several posts seeking cash donations to the Associação Mulher to save “millions of children from abortion, from society, from women.”
Father Helio did not respond to repeated requests for comment, and an official at the Archdiocese of Florianópolis said only that Associação Mulher was a “confidential project.”
On the second visit, my colleague had a private therapy session with a Catholic psychologist, Luiz Carmona. It was a 90-minute lecture in which Carmona told my colleague that if she were to have an abortion, she might die, get an infection, or become mentally unstable, and that her partner might become violent toward her. The psychologist had my colleague hold a rubber fetus and then told her, “This baby will bleed. The blood will come out, then he [the abortion provider] will try to take the pieces. To be sure, he will put on a vacuum and will suck out the pieces of that baby. ”
She was also informed that women who have abortions can become addicted to alcohol or drugs, or develop depression or generalized anxiety disorder. As a result of a woman’s abortion, male partners, too, he claimed, might develop psychic disorders and suffer from erectile dysfunction.
We linked this operation, what conservatives in the United States would call a “crisis pregnancy center,” to the Centro de Ajuda à Mulher (CAM), which operates in 14 Latin American countries and has the explicit mission of preventing women from having abortions. The phone number for CAM in São Paulo is same as the one for the house where we met the psychologist. The network, which was founded by Jorge Serrano Limón in Mexico City in 1989, claims to have served 25,000 women in 2013 alone and appears to have only recently expanded into Brazil. The organization says 85 percent of people who showed up at their doors decided to not have an abortion.
Leticia Zenevich, project coordinator at the Dutch organization Women on Web, said: “These organizations exist all over the world, and the idea is to be a trap. Many times they seek to delay treatment. The woman goes the first time and they keep saying they will help her, until weeks pass and an abortion becomes dangerous for the woman.”
According to Valeska Zanello, a professor in the Department of Clinical Psychology at the University of Brasília, subjecting vulnerable women to this kind of therapy can amount to psychological torture. She told us, “In Brazil, when a woman wishes to have no children, she does not have the legal means to realize this option.… These women have a high degree of vulnerability and are very susceptible to manipulation. This is a misuse of religion.”
This report was produced by Agência Pública, a nonprofit investigative journalism agency based in Brazil. This is a translation of the original version, published in Portuguese here. Caroline Ferrari, Maurício Moraes, and Patrícia Figueiredo contributed reporting.