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Abortion in Brazil: Frequent and Often Deadly

March 26, 1991

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (AP) _ The World Health Organization says 4 million abortions were performed last year in Brazil - 10 percent of the world’s total in a nation of 150 million people. Many of them are deadly.

Dr. Luis Eduardo Vaz Miranda, president of the Brazilian Pediatrics Society, said about 10,000 women die of abortions every year and 200,000 are hospitalized because of complications.

Birth control is a subject of controversy in Brazil, the world’s largest Roman Catholic country. Abortion is illegal except in rape cases or when pregnancy threatens a woman’s life, amd legal abortions are difficult to obtain.

Pregnant women are commonly fired from their jobs or face discrimination if they are able to continue working.

Birth control was legalized only in the 1988 constitution and little information is available about it. Contraceptives usually are available only at private drugstores, not in state health clinics.

One result is ignorance that leads to desperation, as in the case of Alexandra, a 16-year-old street girl.

When Alexandra discovered she was going to have a baby in six months, she asked three friends to beat it out of her. They did, one summer night on a Rio street corner, with their feet and a broom handle.

Alexandra passed out on the sidewalk and began hemorrhaging.

An ambulance took her to a hospital. She nearly died, but the bleeding stopped and she was back on the streets a week later, begging and occasionally engaging in prostitution.

″I hate what I did,″ Alexandra said, tears coursing down her cheeks as she and two friends told the story. ″But I couldn’t bring my baby into the world to suffer.″

Doctors and feminists say that, even in cases of rape, it is almost impossible to obtain a legal abortion because police reports, a judge’s authorization and a report from a state medical office are required.

″The system is designed to make getting an abortion impossible,″ said Dr. Helio Ludwig Pereira, a leading Rio pediatrician. He said only two legal abortions had been performed in Brazil since the abortion law was passed in 1987.

Illegal abortion is a thriving business, and for the wealthy can be quick and safe. Private doctors perform abortions at clandestine clinics on the tree-lined streets of Rio’s affluent South Zone.

Things are much different for millions of impoverished women in Brazil, where half the workers are paid less than $120 a month and half the population is functionally illiterate.

Many attempt abortions by themselves, with knitting needles, clothes hangers or the stem of a castor plant.

Midwives, witch doctors and free-lance medics in rural areas may charge $300 for a procedure that involves inserting a plastic tube into the cervix to create an infection and induce an abortion.

″It’s doubly unfair,″ said Ana Filgueiras, director of the organization SOS Child and Adolescents. ″Poor women pay three times more and run obscene health risks.″

Women in outlying areas often have no access to contraceptives, and those who do find the cost prohibitively high.

″Three condoms cost 600 cruzeiros ($3),″ said Claudia, 18, who has lived in the streets of Rio’s impoverished North Zone for four years. ″I can eat lunch for that.″

Latin America’s ″macho″ tradition also impedes birth control. Many men see offspring as a measure of their masculinity, and discourage their wives from using contraceptives for fear they will take other sexual partners.

Hundreds of thousands of abandoned girls who survive on Brazil’s streets as beggars or prostitutes are especially vulnerable.

Generally, street girls are too frightened to talk about abortion, but several reluctantly agreed to meet with a reporter if a woman social worker they trusted was present.

The meeting took place at night, under a chestnut tree on the edge of Copacabana beach, with a dozen children sleeping on slabs of cardboard nearby.

Adriana de Albuquerque Viana, a 14-year-old veteran of four years on the streets, spoke softly of her first pregnancy.

″My stomach started to fill up,″ said the dark, bony girl dressed in sandals, a black T-shirt and Bermuda shorts. ″A friend said a demon was inside me. I was desperate.″

She sought out a ″curandeiro,″ or witch doctor, in a hilltop slum.

In a plywood shack, she drank half a cup of brew containing cocaine, rum, marijuana, black beans and herbs. She lay down. The witch doctor rubbed more of it on her toes and chanted.

″In a few minutes, it dropped out of me,″ she said. ″I felt a great pain and I started bleeding. The curandeiro told me I needed to take rose tea.″

Adriana gulped down the tea, made from the petals of white roses, which is used for spiritual healing in Afro-Brazilian spirit religions. The bleeding soon slowed, then stopped, she said.

Her friend Vania da Silva Moreira, an unwed mother of two at 21, nodded.

″I tried to do the same with my Fabiana,″ she said, rocking her 2-month- old daughter in her arms. ″But it didn’t work.″

Jacqueline Hins de Oliveira, a volunteer at SOS Adolescents, listened to the stories and confirmed the methods.

″These girls don’t even know they’re pregnant,″ she said. ″How would they know how to get a safe abortion?″

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