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In Latin America, the Battle Over Legalizing Abortion Is Heating Up

Times Staff Writer

By their own definition, Dulcelina Vasconcelos Xavier and Yury Puello Orozco are committed Catholics. But in the eyes of the Vatican, they’re apologists for murder.

“We’re rebels,” Xavier acknowledged. “We’re going to convince Catholics of the right to choose.”

The two women belong to a faith-based organization in Sao Paulo dedicated to promoting abortion rights in a land where almost none exist. Together with civic groups, some medical professionals and a handful of judges and politicians, Xavier and Orozco occupy the front lines of an increasingly heated battle over faith, morality and individual rights in Brazil, the world’s largest Catholic country.

It’s a battle being fought throughout Latin America, where religion and tradition have long made abortion a largely taboo subject and a mostly outlawed practice. Restrictive laws remain in force across the region, but public debate over abortion has mushroomed recently amid moves to lift bans on ending unwanted pregnancies.

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In Mexico, for example, antiabortion activists have gone to the Supreme Court to stop a newly enacted law under which the “morning-after” pill would be made available widely in the country’s 19,000 government hospitals and clinics. Catholic groups have excoriated President Vicente Fox for liberalizing use of the hormone-based drug, which can be taken after sex to prevent pregnancy.

In Uruguay, a bill legalizing abortion that had been approved by the lower house was defeated in the Senate by just three votes last year. Backers of the legislation, including trade unions, women’s groups, doctors associations and even some Protestant churches, have vowed to keep trying.

Colombia’s high court is expected to rule by the end of the year on a petition to slightly loosen the country’s abortion laws. In August, the influential newsmagazine Semana put the issue on its cover, declaring, “It’s time to decriminalize.”

In Brazil, a bill authorizing abortion on demand was introduced last month by a government minister after lengthy deliberations by a high-level commission. Supporters acknowledge that the bill’s chances of approval are slim but hail its introduction as a step forward in turning the issue into a matter of civic debate rather than the preserve of religious dogma.

“Even if we don’t succeed in getting this law passed, society won’t be the same,” Orozco said, “because there will have been discussion of the issue as a woman’s right to decide.”

Abortions are permitted in Brazil and in many other Latin American countries only in cases of rape or when the mother’s life is in danger, although many opponents want even these provisions scrapped. Only Cuba and Guyana have completely legalized abortion, and in Chile and El Salvador, terminating a pregnancy is forbidden under any circumstance.

Proponents of relaxing the laws note that the bans do not mean that abortions don’t take place -- merely that they get driven underground.

According to the United Nations Population Fund, about 4 million clandestine abortions are performed in Latin America every year, some of them poorly, ending in injury or death to the mother. Botched abortions rank among the leading causes of maternal mortality in several countries in the region, including Brazil.

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Many abortion rights activists are trying to frame the issue as a matter of public health rather than an argument over women’s reproductive rights.

Other groups emphasize the unequal social realities arising from the laws against abortion, which affect poor women disproportionately because they lack alternatives to public healthcare. In Brazil as elsewhere, well-off women resort to clandestine but efficient clinics to end their pregnancies, whereas their disadvantaged sisters must rely on shady outfits where inadequate conditions and incompetent care often expose them to greater risk of injury.

“The women who die the most from abortion are poor, young and black,” said Fatima Oliveira, a physician and director of the Women’s Health Network. “Those who don’t have money pay with their lives. This is anti-democratic, cruel and cannot continue.”

Even when women are legally entitled to an abortion, as in cases of rape, finding a doctor to perform one can be especially difficult for poor women. Some doctors refuse to perform such operations on religious grounds.

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When 18-year-old Alice da Silva Oliveira discovered that the twins in her womb were joined at the chest, sharing a heart, she won permission from a judge to end her pregnancy because neither baby would survive. Although rape and danger to a mother’s life are the only explicitly stated justifiable reasons for abortion, an increasing number of Brazilian judges have granted the right to abortion in certain cases of severe malformations of the fetus.

But Oliveira could not find a doctor at her local hospital willing to carry out the judge’s orders. Her lawyer, Soraya Taveira Gaya, had to drive her to a hospital in Rio de Janeiro, 50 miles from Oliveira’s hometown, to obtain the operation.

Gaya is not in favor of unfettered access to abortion, only a softening of the law to make termination an option for women carrying babies with extreme deformities.

Yet even an exception for such rare cases is vigorously opposed by the Catholic Church in Brazil, as Gaya discovered with another teenage client, whose baby was anencephalic, a condition in which the brain fails to fully develop.

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After the girl received court permission to end her pregnancy, religious groups intervened, filing a legal petition on behalf of the unborn child.

“They entered the case in the name of the fetus. And they won,” Gaya said. The girl gave birth to a baby who lived for seven minutes.

Some antiabortion activists here have adopted more aggressive tactics. One Brazilian priest has been known to hurl rubber fetuses at physicians who perform abortions and to post photos on his website of the doctors.

A spokesman for the Catholic Church did not respond to requests for comment.

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Xavier and Orozco’s organization, Catholics for the Right to Decide, based in Sao Paulo, South America’s most populous city, is trying to fight theology with theology.

“Catholic religious values exist that can be used by women to justify their sexual and reproductive decisions -- for example, the appeal to [individual] conscience,” said Orozco, a theologian by training.

Other groups say that Brazil, as a secular, pluralistic state, should not have laws on its books based on the teachings of a particular faith.

Although the legislation working its way through Brazil’s Congress is not likely to pass, abortion rights advocates say momentum is building for a broad-based, grass-roots movement to try to effect change, as has happened in Uruguay.

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“We believe our cause has made fantastic progress,” said Oliveira of the Women’s Health Network. “We trust society is now mature enough to discuss the issue, and the bill to decriminalize abortion is a major advancement.”


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