RIO DE JANEIRO – With her 21st birthday approaching, Sara left the house she shares with her mother for her first flight. She did not tell her family why she took out a loan for 5,000 Brazilian reais (US $ 1,000).
Two days later and several hundred miles away, a 25-year-old woman packed a backpack in her one bedroom apartment in Sao Paulo and went to the airport with her boyfriend.
Both women were on their way to the Argentine capital Buenos Aires to look for something forbidden in Brazil: an abortion.
“Having a child I don’t want and who has no parenting requirements and being obliged would be torture,” Sara told The Associated Press at Sao Paulo airport as she prepared on a bench to sleep near the check-in counter the night before your connecting flight.
“What has helped me since discovering I was pregnant is that I have a chance. I still have an alternative. It makes me feel safer, ”said the woman, who lives in downtown Belo Horizonte, Brazil, and asked that only her first name be used because of the stigma associated with abortion in Brazil.
Both women are part of a trend among resourceless Brazilian women who have sought abortions elsewhere in the region to avoid risks and legal obstacles in Latin America’s most populous country. You didn’t even need passports to enter Argentina, a Mercosur compatriot.
Their trips came just two weeks before December 30th, landmark law to legalize abortion is passed in Argentina – the largest Latin American nation to do this. It not only highlights how progressive social policies in Argentina differ from conservative ones in Brazil, but also the likelihood that more Brazilian women will seek abortions in the neighboring country.
“With the legislative changes in Latin America, women don’t have to go to the US, don’t need a visa to get an abortion,” said Debora Diniz, a Latin American studies researcher at Brown University who has done extensive research on abortion in the region.
“More middle and working class women associated with feminist groups now have access to what has essentially been the story of wealthy women for a long time.”
Sara said she couldn’t risk buying counterfeit abortion pills or undergoing dangerous backdoor procedures in Brazil. She feared injury, death, or a failed abortion that led to complications. Getting caught could even mean jail.
A protocol from the Argentine Ministry of Health gave Sara’s legal scope for abortion on December 14, as long as she signed a statement citing the “health risk” of pregnancy. The policy was based on the World Health Organization’s definition of health: “A state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, not just the absence of disease or ailment.”
Even so, some doctors refused to abort, according to Dr. Viviana Mazur, who heads the Argentine Federation of General Practitioner’s Sexual Health Group. The new law allows abortions up to the 14th week of pregnancy.
“More autonomy and dignity for women”
“The law will give women more autonomy and dignity,” said Dr. Mazur. “So you don’t have to say ‘please’ or ask for permission or forgiveness.”
Prior to last week’s vote, Argentine feminist groups had long pushed for legalized abortion in Pope Francis’ homeland and found common ground with President Alberto Fernández, who was elected in 2019 and introduced the law.
Activists demonstrated in front of the Congress for weeks. Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who led the debate in a legislature where more than 40% of legislators are women, announced the passage of the law. A crowd of several thousand people outside burst into cheers and tearful hugs.
There was no response at the Brazilian Congress 15% of the legislators are women.
Brazilian law has remained practically unchanged since 1940 and only allows abortions in cases of rape and danger to the life of the woman. A 2012 Supreme Court ruling also allowed abortions if the fetus has anencephaly. Legislators have put in place since President Jair Bolsonaro took office in January 2019 at least 30 invoices try to tighten laws, according to watchdog Women in Congress.
With the support of conservatives and evangelicals, Bolsonaro has declared that he would veto if Congress legalized abortion. After the Argentine law was passed, Bolsonaro said on Twitter that children “must be harvested in the womb with the consent of the state”.
He appointed the evangelical pastor Damares Alves, who has declared that she opposes abortion even if it is rape, as his minister for women, families and human rights. After a 10-year-old was raped by her uncle and religious protesters besieged the hospital where her abortion was performed in August, Alves said the fetus should have been delivered by caesarean section.
“We are working to provide increasing levels of attention and protection to our pregnant women in vulnerable situations,” Alves said in a written response to AP questions. “Nobody will want to leave the Brazil we are building, much less to kill their children.”
Diniz, the researcher at Brown University, conducted a survey in Brazil in 2016 that found that one in five respondents by the age of 40 had an abortion Survey of 2,002 Brazilian women found higher abortion rates among those with less education and lower incomes.
In 2018, a health department official announced that the government has initiated approximately 1 million abortions annually, with unsafe procedures causing more than 250,000 hospitalizations and 200 deaths.
“Abortion is a common experience in a woman’s life. At the same time, it is a sensitive political issue that men in power are raising awareness about,” said Diniz.
The Sao Paulo woman, who traveled to Argentina last month for an abortion, grew up in a slum or favela in Rio de Janeiro, where she often saw unplanned pregnancies affecting women’s lives, burdening them with responsibility and escalating it made it even more difficult to develop a career or have social mobility.
“It’s hard to get out of this reality,” she said.
She was able to leave the favela after she found a secure job and is studying for a career in a medical field. In doing so, she “became my parents’ pride,” said the woman, who asked not to use her name because she feared professional consequences and because abortion is illegal in Brazil.
Raised in a devout Protestant family, the woman said that having an abortion in Brazil means violating both your God and national law. Of the two, she believed God could forgive her, so she looked abroad.
In this way she said, “No one will be able to accuse me of committing a crime.”
Both women turned to the Brazilian nonprofit organization Miles for women’s life, founded by screenwriters Juliana Reis and Rebeca Mendes, who pioneered in 2017 when she publicly announced that she was traveling outside of Brazil for an abortion. The group helped the first woman go abroad in November 2019, and another 59 had followed late last year. A total of 16 women traveled to Argentina in November and December.
It raises about 4,000 reais ($ 750) a month from crowdfunding and pays travel expenses for about a fifth of the women, Reis said. Efforts are focused on providing moral support and assistance to women navigating unknown countries and contacting clinics abroad.
The group has received around 1,500 requests for support at home and abroad. Some asked about neighboring Uruguay without knowing its law only applies to residents, Reis said. The only other Places in Latin America where abortion is legal are Cuba, Guyana, French Guiana and parts of Mexico.
After Argentina approves legalization, the group expects more Brazilian women to have an affordable, safe, and legal option on their doorstep. Reis said the group has 13 women traveling to Argentina in January and they expect trips there to become more frequent, particularly from southern Brazil.
“Our surgeries have reached an intense level because many people believe that hiding this in the closet and finding workarounds is no longer tolerable,” said Reis. “For me this is the beginning of a change.”
After her abortion, Sara said in Buenos Aires that she was relieved and was even considering sharing the experience with her family.
“I know women who have had abortions secretly,” she said. “In Brazil – and everywhere – there are women who need this support.”