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Abortion and domination in France and Brazil

August 3, 2010

The Non-Religious State in Brazil

In Brazil, abortion is a crime not only for the doctor who performs it but also for women having the surgery. It’s not a crime for men who got these women pregnant and often run away. The Brazilian government is supposed to be non-religious where political decisions are not supposed to be guided by religious values and beliefs. When representatives who discuss abortion issues by debating the notion of “life” according to Christian values and therefore as a gift to be preserved no matter what, they’re in fact being unconstitutional. In Brazil, we do not have a non-religious culture and a State that works to improve citizen’s lives. This is somewhat recent in Brazilian history. Sérgio Buarque de Holanda and Darcy Ribeiro, two important Brazilian sociologists, have described in their works how the old colonialist plantation mind shaped Brazilian political culture. We even had a president who used to openly say: “To my friends, everything. To the enemies, the law.”

A bit of theory

Political theory, according to sociologists, political scientists and philosophers, says that the State is a structure created to maintain a certain ideology. It is a domination structure where a certain social group rules over others. It’s easy to prove that when we look at who’s ruling the State: men who are white and usually from families who have had money for centuries. Both sociologists Louis Althusser and Pierre Bourdieu have described how education, religion and other social institutions work to keep things working in this domination structure.

The status quo

It’s important to take a look at exactly what domination schema is ongoing in the Brazilian society. “Domination” is not a subjective term but rather the imposition of certain social group’s values, culture and standards for everyone. Social groups tend to dominate when they have control of the State and other institutions. So, who’s in control? What gender? What race? Does anyone still think it’s a coincidence that to be taken seriously as leaders in companies and political parties women have to wear a “feminine suite” (tailleur, in French) and be as less feminine as possible? That university tests demand knowledge of Shakespeare but not of rhyming for rap music?

As I once wrote on my blog, Mulher Alternativa (automatic English translation available on the right menu top), body control is one of the most powerful tools of domination. Portuguese people made indigenous tribes dress in their “civilized” clothing when they arrived in Brazil in the 16th century. Some Muslim countries do not allow women to travel by themselves. Students had to stand up whenever the principal would enter the classroom during Brazilian dictatorships. Even waxing or plastic surgery can be considered forms of keeping a woman’s body under control.

What’s abortion got to do with domination?

Generally, a little deviation from a woman’s body in relation to what it’s said it’s supposed to be is enough reason to disqualify that woman. Proof of that are recent studies showing that fat women have worse salaries and even fewer chances of getting elected for political positions. Fat men, however, are considered more trusting for politics.

The struggle of women for legal abortion is a struggle for women’s control over their own bodies. In Brazil, for example, if you get pregnant, it doesn’t matter how it happened, you do not have any control of what happens with your body from then on. On the otherhand, pregnancy impacts a woman’s career negatively while it impacts a man’s career positively, according to a U.S. research study. In Brazilian culture, girls and women have been told that motherhood is natural for women. Therefore, culture makes women consider that pregnancy is always more important than anything else—even a career. It’s an ideology that, among other things, justifies the criminalization of abortion.

Why make abortion legal?

My reasons to fight for legal and safe abortions in Brazil and everywhere else in the world are, as I supposed you may guess, not religious. Abortion should be treated as a public health issue and, more than that, as a State administration strategy. When abortions are illegal, we can’t have any idea of how many pregnant women wish to interrupt it. We can’t guarantee that abortions are performed safely which is why having an abortion is one of the leading causes of death among women in Brazil. Public policies regarding family planning in Brazil are therefore created blindly.

In France, for example, there is a huge debate about abortion statistics. Right after it became legal in the 1970s, the number of abortions dropped. In the past few years, however, the numbers stopped decreasing and became more stable. To many French people, that probably meant that family planning policies are not working well.

In France, abortion is legal. Is that enough?

When I was in France last January, I noticed a government billboard promoting the right for choice. Listening to the radio, reading blogs and newspapers and watching a bit of TV while chatting with French friends, I started to realize that even those who would choose to have a baby in case of a non-expected pregnancy, were pro-choice. They argued that everyone who chooses to have an abortion does not die from having it. In France, if a woman wants to have a pregnancy interruption (as they beautifully call it) she only needs her own authorization. Even if she’s underage! The name “Volunteer Pregnancy Interruption” (IVG – Interruption Volontaire de Grossèsse) also shows what an abortion is supposed to be: a medical procedure.

I was moved by this subject and bought a book about it as soon as I could. It’s called Abortion Today (Avorter Aujourd’hui in French) written by Olivia Benhamou, a journalist who follows a few women in their paths to get an IVG. Benhamou first explores how these women got pregnant. Well, in France, one of the biggest reasons why women receive IVGs is because they became pregnant while using contraception incorrectly. This happens because gynecologists, not just in France but in most places, usually prescribe contraception without taking into account their patients’ lifestyles. Lack of accessible information while using contraception is also mentioned as another reason.

At the same time, using a condom as another form of contraception is not that simple for a woman. To protect themselves, women have to convince a guy to wear a piece of plastic on his body. But let’s remember that men are not used to having their bodies controlled. For this reason, some women find that it’s not easy to convince him and even more so, after he refuses to wear it, to deny sex.

Is this the fault of the man? Not exactly. Culture, in Brazil, France, and probably every country around the world in some way or another, has raised men to think that sex is not pleasurable with a condom and that the consequences of not using protection are not dire. Culture has also taught us, as women, to think our bodies are worth less. In Brazil, a recent study from the government about STIs and AIDS (available in Portuguese only here) has shown that men have sex with condoms a lot more often than women, confirming what UNAIDS had reported before.

The second point that Olivia Benhamou discusses in her book on abortion, however, is a lot more complicated. All of the ideological control, culture, values, and maternity discourse does not disappear when abortion becomes legal and accessible in public hospitals. In France, women who try to have an IVG outside big cities, for example, are taken illegally to brainwash sessions of “hearing the baby’s heart.” But there is still a far worse consequence of these maintaing these values even after legal, safe and accessible IVGs are possible: in family planning centers (where French women must go if they want to schedule an IVG), patients are not taken seriously and are lied to about the dates of availability for an abortion. Since it’s legal to have an abortion for the first 14 weeks of pregnancy in France, many women are only scheduled for the surgery after that period of time. If they want an IVG after that, they’re forced to travel to Spain or the Netherlands in order to obtain an abortion.

An IVG isn’t as moving as I thought it would be. As shown above, French officials are still controlling women’s bodies by forcing them to have either unsafe abortions or forcing them to travel to another country for an abortion.

For legal, safe and accessible abortions!

Last, but not least, the complexity of abortion, whether legal or illegal, does not make it unnecessary. In fact, it’s the opposite. Making abortion legal does not mean that the number of abortions will increase. Indeed, making abortion illegal raises the number of unsafe abortions.

Let’s remember that abortion is a medical procedure, not a pleasurable practice. It also hurts. It’s uncomfortable. It involves tough decisions, which includes facing one’s own values and plans for one’s life. Making it legal only means we, as women, won’t have to risk our lives anymore if we have control over it.

When there is legal support for abortion, such as there is in France, it’s possible to observe and keep policies working. But legality does not necessarily mean equal rights for all. If most medical, legal and political decisions are made mostly by men, rights over one’s own body, in particular over women’s bodies, will never be assured. On the other hand, if we put our strenght together to change this picture, we can build a different (and better) story for the future.

Marília Moschkovich is a Brazilian sociologist and masters’ student currently researching women scientists in her country. She has worked for gender equality in different NGOs for over ten years. She is the author of an article blog in Portuguese and contributes to another blog (also in Portuguese) about sexism in politics. In addition to feminism, she is also passionate about travelling, cooking and cinema.

3 Comments
  1. Olaifa Temitope permalink
    August 3, 2010 12:32 pm

    Thank you so much, Marilia, for this beautiful piece. I am also researching into African women and Governance. I think your blog on sexism and Politics would be quite useful in this research. How can i get connected to it? Mind you , I speak English and not Portuguese.Can we work something out. Please let’s.

  2. Carla Fernández permalink
    August 4, 2010 7:52 pm

    Excellent post! Thank you

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