So this is interesting: in Brazil, where abortion is illegal, health officials have launched a new program aimed at preventing unwanted pregnancies and illegal abortions, and it’s actually smart:
As part of a new fight against Brazil’s sky-high number of unwanted pregnancies and illegal abortions, the country’s most populous state is offering “morning after” contraceptive pills at metro stops and 90 percent off contraceptive pills at pharmacies.
And that’s not all. Federal Health officials are offering to train teachers to give sex education and offering condoms to pupils. And the Health Ministry wants men to take more responsibility and is offering free vasectomies.
These and other measures are part of a wide-ranging and controversial new public health initiative by state and federal officials designed to address women’s health issues and reduce the number of illegal abortions and complications stemming from those underground procedures.
“It’s all about sexual rights and reproduction,” says Dr. Adson França, one of the federal officials involved in implementing the programs. “What we want to do is give access to the poorest citizens and let them choose what course of action to take. We want to give them options.”
To do that, the government has launched a series of programs over the last few years that Dr. França says mark a “coordinated effort never before seen in Brazil.”
One of the main goals is to slash the number of abortions and unwanted pregnancies. In 2004, the last year for which figures are available, 7 in every 100 Brazilian women between the ages of 15 and 19 gave birth, says França’s colleague Dr. Lena Peres. This is nearly twice the number in the US, according to 2003 government figures.
And although accurate figures are impossible to determine because abortions are illegal in this overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country, the Health Ministry estimates 1 million abortions are performed each year.
Many more unplanned pregnancies go to term with around 1 in 3 pregnancies unwanted, according to Dr. Jefferson Drezett, head of the Hospital Perola Byington, Latin America’s largest women’s health clinic.
The medical costs of back-street abortions are enormous, with 240,000 women hospitalized each year suffering from complications caused by illegal procedures, according to Health Ministry figures.
Let me say up front that I unequivocally disagree with the fact that abortion is illegal in Brazil. There’s no excuse for it, it puts women’s lives at risk, and with all of the birth control and vasectomies and emergency contraception in the world, abortion still needs to be legal and available to women. Period.
That being said, I can’t help but think that this program is incredibly awesome.
The fact is, the officials are wrong about abortion. But at least they are responsible enough to recognize that outlawing abortion doesn’t end it and that providing people with education and options to prevent pregnancy is the only way to reduce abortion rates. They’re nuts if they think that providing EC at the shops in metro stations is going to end abortion, but providing EC in this way is also a brilliant idea — as is 90% off of oral contraception, free condoms, sex education and the offer of free vasectomies.
Of course, the Catholic Church doesn’t feel the same way.
The moves have not passed unnoticed by conservative opponents. One city council tried to ban the pill but was denied by a judge who ruled the ban unconstitutional.
The Catholic church has protested at what it sees as the state’s increasingly liberal stance.
“We know that these proposals don’t just come from the government but also from international organizations,” says Bishop Orlando Brandes, underlining that the church is “radically against” any attempts to make contraceptives easier to get. “This isn’t new; there’s a new acceptance of it.”
[“The pill” here seems to mean EC, and the reporter here was just irresponsible enough to not specify. Of course, the Church is also opposed to pretty much any form of contraception, but they oppose EC most vehemently.]
I can’t say that I’m surprised by their reaction. But I can say that in such a hugely Catholic country, I am surprised that this plan has received such wide support.
And it leaves me with a question: does this put the Brazilian government ahead of ours in the U.S.?
Yeah, abortion is legal here. Mostly. It’s very frequently not accessible, though, and also unaffordable for many women. In addition, there are slews of people — government officials — actively trying to outlaw abortion. They’re not trying to prevent abortion, either. In fact, they’re promoting abstinence only education, which only serves to increase unplanned pregnancy rates and therefore also most likely increases rates of abortion. Our government is opposed to condom distribution, it’s opposed to having EC over the counter at all, and you better bet that they’re opposed to government subsidizing of anything on an even remotely large scale, let alone oral contraception and vasectomies.
The Brazil government, on the other hand, opposes abortion but is still taking an active interest in women’s health. Yes, one of the best ways to support women’s health is to make abortion legal, but it’s hardly the only piece in the puzzle. And right now, they are actively putting the other pieces in place while the U.S. government has never supported this many pieces and is actively working to remove the ones that we do have.
Clearly, I’m not saying that I’d rather live in Brazil. But they are doing what we rail at anti-choicers so often for failing to do, and that’s actually trying to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies. And I can’t help but feel that we can and should learn something from that, and that in this light we really need to take another good, hard look at the incredibly irresponsible system that the U.S. has in place. I think that it points out the possible need to reconsider our priorities, because while abortion is incredibly important it’s not the only thing. I also think that it’s time to ask if a country that is not nearly as economically successful as the U.S. and is largely influenced by the Catholic Church can pull this off, why the fuck can’t we?