Eye to Eye with the Beast

The fight to decriminalize abortion in Brazil

Anna Maria Maiolino, Entrevidas (Between Lives), from Fotopoemação (PhOtopoemaction). 1981, printed in 2014, digital Print. 48 × 303⁄4”, 487⁄8 × 311⁄2 × 13⁄8" (framed) each. Photo by Stefan Altenburger Photography Zürich. Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth. © Anna Maria Maiolino.

In mid-November of 2017 right around the time the leaked Paradise Papers exposed the brazen tax-evasion strategies of hundreds of politicians, businesspeople, media personalities, and athletes from around the world, including a number of prominent BraziliansRebeca Mendes, a working-class woman from a poor neighborhood on the periphery of São Paulo, was grappling with a crisis of her own: she was pregnant and didn’t want to be. At the time, the 30-year-old mother of two was employed on a short-term contract by Brazil’s census institute and was paid a salary that barely exceeded the country’s monthly minimum wage of 937 reais, or around $300 at that time. She was also starting her third year of an undergraduate degree in law at a private university, a hard-won investment in her future that she had secured thanks to a full scholarship from the Brazilian Ministry of Education. In a letter she later wrote about her experience, she said that “it didn’t seem fair” that an unplanned pregnancy should interrupt her life at a time when her professional advancement and financial security so precariously depended on her forward momentum. “I would have had to stop everything, everything that I had accomplished up until that moment. It would have been the end of a dream I was working toward. It was devastating,” she told me.

Mendes’s distress stemmed from the fact that in Brazil, abortion is illegal and subject to prosecution save in three situations: if a pregnancy results from rape, if carrying a pregnancy to term fatally threatens the health of the mother, or if a fetus is proven to suffer from anencephaly, a condition in which large portions of the brain or skull do not develop during gestation. The circumstances of Mendes’s pregnancy did not fall into any of these categories, so if she decided not to carry it to term, she would have to break the law. Mendes took stock of her options. She knew she couldn’t afford the high prices charged by clandestine clinics, where an abortion can cost up to 7,500 reais, or approximately $1,360. Purchasing a medical abortion drug like misoprostol from a black-market dealer, as thousands of Brazilian women do each year, was a much more affordable option, but one that came with its own drawbacks. If she ended up in the hospital with complications, she might be reported to the police. She didn’t want to be arrested or, worse, die. 

As Mendes continued to search for a solution, an acquaintance gave her a phone number, informing her vaguely that it belonged to “someone who could help.” The number turned out to belong to Debora Diniz, one of Brazil’s most prominent feminist academics and an outspoken advocate for reproductive rights. After a series of lengthy discussions, Diniz, who in 1999 cofounded the feminist bioethics nonprofit Anis, convinced Mendes to take part in an audacious and unorthodox path forward: to serve as the illustrative plaintiff in a federal supreme court case calling for the total decriminalization of abortion until the twelfth week of pregnancy, providing a human face to an abstract legal action filed jointly by Anis and the Socialism and Liberty Party earlier that year. For the first time in Brazilian history, a womanand a working-class woman at thatwould appeal to the highest court in the land for her right to terminate a pregnancy for personal reasons. Reflecting on her experience, Mendes shrugged off the implication that her actions were particularly momentous or courageous. Of all the possibilities for terminating her pregnancy, she told me, “going before the supreme court was the least bad.” 

It came as no surprise when, within a few weeks, the court denied Mendes’s petition to have a safe, legal abortion in her home country. With support provided by Anis, she traveled to Bogotá, Colombia, where women are permitted to terminate unwanted pregnancies legally at both private and public medical facilities. Despite its failure to persuade the court, her case would have lasting consequences in Brazil. Within days of filing, Mendes became a minor celebrity. Pro-life groups reached out to suggest she put the baby up for adoption or to give her baskets of food. Others called her a slut and a murderer. One evening a woman appeared at her doorstep and begged her not to abort, recounting her own remorse over an abortion she’d had years earlier. A group of evangelicals informed her that if she decided to have the baby, lost her job, and couldn’t pay her rent, she and her children could live in the backroom of their church. “They don’t get it,” she told me. “To them, if a woman doesn’t want to be a mother, something is seriously wrong with her.” 

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