RIO DE JANEIRO — The doctor was late. So the women sat quietly in the waiting area of a clinic in an upscale neighbourhood of Rio de Janeiro until they were overcome by thoughts of what they were about to do and what might happen to them. They began to talk.
One woman said she was in a relationship with a drug lord and knew he would force her to have “his” baby if he found out she was pregnant. Another was a successful businesswoman who had separated from her children’s father and become pregnant accidentally by another man. A third just cried.
A fourth, Roberta Cardoso, had become pregnant accidentally with her boyfriend and felt she wasn’t mature enough to become a mother.
“At that moment I probably knew much more about their stories than their families did,” Cardoso, 26, said during a recent interview with The Associated Press.
As in many countries, abortion is a subject of taboo in Brazil, a socially conservative nation with the world’s largest Roman Catholic population as well as a growing evangelical Christian community. Abortion is illegal here except when a woman’s life is at risk, when she has been raped or when the fetus has a usually fatal brain abnormality called anencephaly.
But amid a rising tide of conservatism in Brazil and concerns that abortion will become further restricted, women are coming out of the shadows to tell their stories in the hopes of galvanizing support for expanded access to abortion.
“We have stopped thinking of this as a private subject. It’s a public subject,” said Rosangela Talib, a co-ordinator for Catholics for Choice, a leading advocate in Brazil for reproductive rights.
An estimated 400,000 to 800,000 women have an abortion each year in Brazil — the vast majority of them illegal. According to Health Ministry statistics, more than 200 women died in 2015 after abortions. If caught, a woman can be sentenced to up to three years and the performer of the procedure up to four, though prosecutions are rare.
More than 170 women, including prominent actresses, directors and academics, have signed a manifesto declaring publicly that they had abortions. Thousands of women have also taken to the streets to protest attempts to further restrict abortion, and more than 34,000 have signed petitions sent to Congress.
When the Anis-Bioethics Institute, an NGO that conducts research on women’s issues, put out a call on Facebook asking for women to tell their stories, 110 came forward in just 19 days.
One of them was Rebeca Mendes, who was seeking an abortion.
The NGO filed an urgent request with the Supreme Court to terminate Mendes’ pregnancy, drawing national attention and putting a name and a face to its quest to legalize abortion. The petition was denied and Mendes eventually had the procedure legally in Colombia.
The wave of public testimony is amplifying a heated debate in Latin America’s largest country, where conservatives fear the Supreme Court could rule to legalize the procedure and women’s activists fear Congress will roll back the already limited abortion rights.
In November 2016, a Supreme Court justice wrote that criminalizing first-trimester abortions violated women’s fundamental rights, a decision that granted the habeas corpus release of two people accused of running an abortion clinic.
Hours after the decision, Congress created a special commission to clarify the law. It has proposed amending Brazil’s constitution to state that protections for life begin at conception. Lawmaker Sostenes Cavalcante said it would be supported by all “who believe in life” and opposed by those “who want to kill the defenceless.”
Cavalcante described the measure as a complete abortion ban, though the lawmaker who wrote it has since said it would not change current law and is meant only to hold off any attempt to further legalize abortion.
Jefferson Drezett, who runs the abortion and sexual violence response department at Perola Byington state hospital in Sao Paulo, said abortion services are already insufficient for women who seek them legally, for reasons ranging from poor management to pressure from politicians and religious groups.
“It’s been almost 80 years that the law (that includes the exceptions) exists, and we still haven’t managed to make this law valid in Brazilian public hospitals,” he said.
Support for legal abortions has been rising, though most Brazilians apparently still oppose them.
A Datafolha survey released Dec. 31 said 36 per cent of Brazilians interviewed were in favour of decriminalizing abortion, up from 23 per cent in 2016. But 57 per cent were still against abortions. The survey interviewed over 2,700 people from 192 municipalities in Brazil and had a margin of error of 2 percentage points.
Among those who want fewer restrictions is Raissa Arruda, a 30-year-old artist who told AP: “I’ve lost the shame around speaking out. … I think we need to speak, so we can decriminalize it.”
Arruda was 18 when she discovered she was pregnant, and her mother didn’t talk to her for weeks after she told her. Arruda eventually had a miscarriage after several painful weeks of feeling judged.
When she got pregnant again a month later, she told almost no one. She couldn’t stand the shame.
She borrowed money from a friend to buy misoprostol, a drug that can be used to cause an abortion. Since the 1990s, misoprostol, which has uses ranging from treating ulcers to inducing labour, has been legally available only at hospital pharmacies in Brazil. However, Arruda said everyone knows where to get it in Florianopolis, the southern city where she grew up.
Djacelina dos Prazeres Chrispim also decided to share her story in an interview with AP.
Fifteen years ago, Chrispim went to a private hospital in Sao Paulo to have an abortion. As a black woman who had a turbulent childhood, she said she didn’t want to bring a child into the world who she feared would face racism and exclusion.
While she had spoken about her experience with some friends and women’s groups over the years, Chrispim had never talked about it publicly until now.
“A woman only has an abortion because she needs to,” said the 42-year-old food activist. “When people speak, it demystifies it.”