The guardian who defends the right to abortion in the poorest Brazil | Society

The girl was 10 years old when she entered the hospital hidden in a taxi while Dr. Olimpio Barbosa Moraes, 60, misled the ultra-Catholics and evangelicals who were protesting furiously. Raped from the age of six by an uncle of hers, the calf had traveled from a neighboring state to Recife, in August 2020, to undergo a termination of pregnancy provided for by law. The extraordinary thing was not that a patient arrived at the operating room with a stuffed animal, but that concentration at the gates of the university hospital. “It was an extreme case because it was disclosed, but here we deal with similar cases,” explains this obstetrician in his office who leads a reference team in the care of victims of sexual violence in this impoverished region of Brazil. What was illegal was that the drama of the minor had transcended. A Bolsonarist revealed her identity.

Affable, resolute and extremely punctual, Barbosa Moraes has spent decades battling in offices and operating rooms so that abortion is, in addition to a phrase in a law, a right guaranteed to all Brazilian women, including the poor, the least educated or those who live in more remote areas. An issue considered politically toxic in Brazil for years, he defends speaking out and approaching it as a public health issue.

Usually quiet, the Cisam hospital, known in the city as Maternidade da Encruzilhada, often receives difficult cases referred by other medical services or feminist groups. “They think of us because they know that they are not going to receive a no, they know that we are not going to change their minds. We have a very safe line of action, very consolidated, ”she says. Her specialty is the most complex cases, those that other hospitals cannot or do not want to attend. Every day at 6:30, the doctor participates in the shift change to keep abreast of developments.

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In 1940, Brazil was the first American country to legislate on abortion, before Canada or Cuba. It only included rape and risk to the mother’s health until in 2012 the courts extended it to anencephaly. These three assumptions and the absence of public debate on reproductive rights beyond the ranks of feminism place this pioneering country among the region’s laggards. Argentina has just legalized abortion, Colombia is awaiting what the Constitutional Court decides and the new president of Chile, Gabriel Boric, campaigned with ideas like this: “Sexual education to decide, contraceptives not to abort, legal abortion not to die ”. But in Brazil the battle is not to expand the right, it is to comply with what the law stipulates.

The reality is dramatic. More than 19,000 Brazilian women between the ages of 10 and 14 gave birth in 2019. Here, too, inequality is clearly reflected: three out of four were mestizo or black. Three minors were mothers before blowing out their tenth birthday candles. The sexual abuse of minors is a widespread and silenced crime: four girls are raped every hour.

The coming to power of Jair Bolsonaro, an ultraconservative misogynist at the head of what the doctor considers “a fascist government,” has multiplied attempts to restrict the right to abortion and aggravated a setback that came from before. Bolsonarism is strong in the medical councils and has placed an evangelical pastor, Damares Alves, at the head of the Ministry of Women. She embarked on the fight against early pregnancies, she blames Tik Tok for the eroticization of girls.

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Hostility against defenders of the right to abortion has increased, threats are multiplying. “Governments, as soon as they are in a hurry, the first thing they place at the negotiating table are women, they are the first course of the banquet,” laments the obstetrician.

The interior of the Cisam hospital in Recife, a reference center for the care of girls who are victims of sexual violence.
The interior of the Cisam hospital in Recife, a reference center for the care of girls who are victims of sexual violence.Brenda Alcantara

Barbosa Morales nostalgically remembers the 1990s and the beginning of the 21st century as a time of expansion of public services for the interruption of pregnancy. But he says that when then-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was plagued by a corruption scandal, he “approached evangelicals and fundamentalists.” Consequence? “Reproductive rights left the agenda of the PT (Workers’ Party) and with Dilma (Rousseff) it got worse.” For him, it is better to lose an election than to market women’s sexual rights.

This married professional and father of three children who accompanies his mother to mass on Sundays, likes to emphasize that, if all pregnancies were wanted, no one would seek an abortion. But many of his compatriots are unaware that in three cases they are entitled to one. And what is worse, in their outpatient clinics they are not informed, as reflected by the fact that 94% of Brazilian women who become pregnant after rape continue with the pregnancy.

That is why what Barbosa Moraes is really passionate about is his other facet, that of a teacher. For the past 25 years, the Cisam University Hospital has trained professionals to practice in Pernambuco and other states. Through them, he fights the battle “against ignorance and prejudice”, aware that favored Brazilian women do usually have the means to access an intervention or abortion medication, but those with fewer resources do not.

The current Cisam team includes 35 obstetricians, anesthesiologists and dozens of nurses coordinated by Benita Spinelli, 61 years old. They all know pressures and controversies. In 2009, they experienced the most notorious case. With slight nuances, it followed the script of 2020. The girl, baptized by the media as Alagoinha, was nine years old and pregnant with twins as a result of her stepfather’s rapes. She confronted her, she to a Catholic archbishop who moved Rome with Santiago to continue with the gestation. Attended by the team of Barbosa Moraes after a pulse, the drama reached international repercussion. The controversy shook the Catholic Church.

The archbishop excommunicated the mother and the doctors, but saved the aggressor, as the magazine recalls Piaui: “That stepfather has committed a great crime, but he is not included in the excommunication. More serious, do you know what it is? Abortion, the elimination of an innocent life”, proclaimed Archbishop José Cardoso.

For this doctor, the fact that Cisam is a hospital that depends on the University of Pernambuco is key because it enjoys an independence that prevents the Government of the day from intervening in the management even if it is financed with public funds. He hopes that if the left returns to power, it will “learn from mistakes” and put women’s reproductive rights where they belong.

On a day-to-day basis, she is concerned about the difficulties poor Brazilian women have in accessing long-term contraception, among other things because only doctors, and not nurses, are authorized to insert an IUD. The restrictive interpretation of the serious risk to the health of the mother that places the life of the woman and the embryo at the same level also keeps him awake at night.

Both the director of the Maternidade da Encruzinhada and the head nurse are of retirement age, but they have already made sure to leave professionals to take over from these guardians of the sexual and reproductive rights of their compatriots.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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