As Mariana stepped out of the car, her boyfriend Rafael knew he might never see her again.
It was a sunny summer’s morning two years ago in Rio de Janeiro, and the young couple had pulled up outside a small house in a residential northern suburb. The address had been given to them a few days earlier over the telephone by a man who did not identify himself. He told them this address was a place where they could get a certain criminal service: abortion.
Mariana, then 23, was 10 weeks pregnant and desperate. She and Rafael, her boyfriend of six months, were students and had no way to financially support a baby. Making matters worse, Mariana came from a strict evangelical Christian family. “I hadn’t dared buy contraception because if my family found it they would know I was having sex,” she said. “If they found out I was pregnant they would have forced us to get married and would have been angry forever.”
On the day of Mariana’s abortion, Rafael handed over a bag containing 1,600 reais, about $575, to a group of men who approached their car. Then they ordered him to leave. “They would not give us any information about how the procedure would be done or who would perform it,” he said. “I knew she might die or end up with terrible complications. But that was the choice we had.”
Rafael was right to be scared. Hundreds of thousands of women are hospitalized each year following complications from illegal abortions in Brazil, where legal terminations are allowed only in very limited circumstances. Scores of them die.
For decades, Brazilian authorities tolerated underground clinics, but in recent years there has been a major crackdown, coinciding with an increasingly hard-line religious Congress. The result is that far more dangerous procedures are carried out by far more unscrupulous people, according to women’s health experts.