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Vicky Shorr

Vicky Shorr

Posted: July 17, 2009 01:44 AM

The Catholic Church Vs. The Women of Brazil

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Abortion might be illegal in Brazil, but that doesn't mean you can't get one -- a million people do every year. The rich pick up the phone and go into a fancy clinic. The poor go to the drugstore and buy an ulcer pill.

The pill is called Cytotec and costs about two dollars a dose in the States. In Brazil, though, it's a whole month's minimum salary these days [about $100], which is precisely where the Catholic Church comes into the story. It was direct pressure from the Church that pushed the pill, an effective abortifacient, from over-the-counter to prescription-only, with the accompanying price rise that sort of thing entails.

Not that this stops people from needing Cytotec. The poor who don't want to be pregnant have few other options -- just the usual gamut of back-alley procedures. Nor can they afford the kind of doctor who gives prescriptions, so they buy the pills under the table, which costs them a full month's pay, subsistence money, by the way, that would have clothed and fed their children -- because they all have children. And they know in ways the Bishops working against them seem not to fathom exactly what another one would cost them, and it's a price they cannot pay.

So they go hungry and take their chances with a pill the Catholic Church has driven to the black market. And the problem with that isn't only the price. The fingers-to-the-bone money they're paying might be for a two-cent coated aspirin. It may be strychnine. They cross themselves as they swallow, and wait a few days. If the bleeding doesn't stop, it still isn't a crime to go to the hospital.

Although it will be, if the bill the Church has managed to get in front of the Brazilian Congress that would criminalize the buying and selling of Cytotec becomes law. If it does, then the choices of the poor who have problems with the pill will be prison or bleeding to death.

The bill has opposition and is unlikely to pass. But it's hard to recognize the Church in Brazil as the same one that in the Eighties was home to the great liberation theologists, whose conception of crime entailed less people desperate to escape pregnancy than capitalist systems that by their very nature sinned against the poor. Those priests worked in the streets, lived in the slums, knew the unwanted children, knew their mothers; but there have been four popes since the Vatican II of Pope John XXIII, and they have squelched, silenced and driven from their ranks those dreamers who actually sought significant social transformation.

Now the Church in Brazil is manned by the likes of the Archbishop of Recife, whose latest idea of social activism [March, 2009] was to ex-communicate the mother of a nine-year-old rape victim, who got the child an abortion. The doctors, too -- even though the child weighed seventy pounds, stood not four feet tall, and was carrying twins that would have killed her.

But all involved in the whole affair were mortal sinners -- except for the serial rapist himself, the child's stepfather, who alone among them was not ex-communicated. The laws he broke were "man's, not God's," said the Archbishop.

This last got people into the streets. The Catholics for the Right to Decide passed out signs that read: "Catholics have sex for pleasure, use condoms, support sexual diversity, and have abortions!"

No news, of course, for anyone who's visited Brazil.

But "When will the Church hierarchy change?" the signs continued, and that is the question.

Certainly not soon enough for the 20,000 children between the ages of ten and fourteen who did have babies in Brazil last year. All of whom were the result of rape, much of it incestuous; and all, pretty much, born prematurely. Even the ones who lived are unlikely to become rocket scientists. The girls among them will be lucky to escape their child-mothers' fate.

But about them, the Church is strangely silent. The born, with their scabs and their hunger, their diapers and crying, are perhaps less appealing than the unborn, who are quiet, perfect, "sin-free," as the priests tell the people from the pulpit. Not unlike the perfect teddy bear.

"And the tragedy of that," says Beatriz Galli of Inaps, an advocacy group for reproductive rights, "is that now what we are seeing is very young rape victims 'volunteering' to carry the babies. The priests cheer, but what happens a year later to a destitute twelve-year-old with a child?"

The streets are full of them, but the Church isn't in the street these days.