Abortion and the origin of crime

Relationship between interrupted pregnancies and criminality, advocated by the Governor of Rio de Janeiro, is controversial and denied by academics who study both subjects

The idea was voiced by Governor Sérgio Cabral Filho in late October: legalizing abortion as a means of fighting crime in Rio de Janeiro. “It’s entirely linked to violence. You take the number of children per mother in the [upscale districts of] Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, Tijuca, Méier and Copacabana, and you have Swedish standards. Now, you take the Rocinha [shantytown]. It’s Zambia, Gabon. It’s a factory for producing criminals,” he said in an exclusive interview to the G1 website. To justify his statement, Cabral Filho resorted to two Americans, Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, the authors of the book Freakonomics, in which they advocate a thesis that links abortions to the reduction of criminality in the USA.

If cutting intrauterine life short gives rise to furious debates in a mainly Roman Catholic country such as Brazil, the notion that violence is connected to poverty and can be fought “at source” produced an even more heated argument. In academia, furthermore, experts in these fields warn us to be careful about embracing such views. Edison Prado de Andrade, who has an M.A. in Education and is also a lawyer, says that dealing with two serious problems in contemporary society in this way is a superficial interpretation of social reality and that its worst effect is to hinder the achievement of the  true understanding of the reasons why these issues exist to the extent that they do.

Author of the dissertation Gestão pública municipal e o problema do ato infracional (Municipal government and the problem of infractions), Andrade states that “surely” this approach represents an ideological manner, in the Marxist sense of the expression, of explaining reality and proposing social changes, because it is a way of concealing reality, as is the argument for reducing the age at which youngsters reach majority for criminal purposes, which, in the view of a substantial portion of Brazil’s society, would be a highly effective way of drastically cutting crime. The criminality-abortion pair, he continues, is also blemished by ideological content and deflects one’s focus away from the analyses and changes that are necessary.

Since the current capitalistic society “is extremely complex”, he explains, there are no easy answers for solving the problems. “Only if we willingly study the true causes of our problems and develop the courage and determination to face them will we be able to cause criminality to remain within its acceptable and normal parameters.” According to him, some of the relevant elements for this discussion are drug trafficking and unemployment. “And many other themes that can only be analyzed from a real perspective if we understand the fundamental crisis at hand.”

According to Andrade, the problem of infractions and criminality – which occur not only amongst the poorest, as people generally think or say, but also among members of the more privileged classes – cannot be reduced to a purely legal formula that conceives of it merely in terms of the desire to infringe the law, and that totally overlooks the sociological and psychological issues that have a bearing on the problem. “Prejudice exists to the extent that it is the result of ignorance; however, in reality, this is more than prejudice.”

The criminalization of poverty, he adds, is a traditional reactionary phenomenon in Brazilian society, which “is committed to safeguarding the current social structures and that advocates retribution oriented policies, such as law and order based on crime repression and on strict application of the criminal laws, and that overlooks the almost total lack of true redistribution policies.”

Abortion and criminality should be discussed separately, according to sociologist Kátia Cibelle Machado Pirotta, who has a Ph.D. in public health and is the author of a doctoral thesis about reproductive behavior and its symbolic universe among university students at the University of São Paulo (USP). “The proposal to legalize abortion in order to reduce crime is of no help in the debate about such issues,” she emphasizes. From the historical point of view, de-criminalizing abortion, she reminds us, is one of the demands of the feminist movement and of certain healthcare sectors, and it has also been advocated through a broad mobilization agenda. One of the pillars of the said mobilization, states Kátia, is treating  abortion as a public health issue. “Interrupting pregnancy is not a novel idea, but a practice that has always existed in society throughout history. Studies about the magnitude of  abortions are estimated  at more than one million a year in Brazil. However, they are carried out in secret, with no accountability regarding clinical conditions or damage to women’s health.” Thus, the outcome of abortions conducted in unsuitable circumstances include infections, infertility, and even the death of thousands of women a year. “It is generally the poorest who subject themselves to this, because they are less able to afford an abortion under better conditions.”

Discussing the legalization of abortions as a way of reducing criminality, highlights Kátia, is the same as treating women’s sterilization as a means of reducing poverty. This type of discourse, in her opinion, is always present in society’s imagination, the idea being that if poor women had fewer children, poverty would be reduced. “However, the rate of childbirth in Brazil has dropped substantially over the last few decades; it now stands at two children per woman. We are nearing the level of population replacement. Whether poverty has  dropped, however, is a totally different story. It depends on how you define poverty, which is, after all, a social construct  which cannot be defined through fixed and unchanging criteria.”

Instead of linking abortion with criminality, Kátia proposes emphasizing the issue of reproductive rights. These, she explains, are a set of rights and principles that provide guidance for dealing with issues that concern reproductive life, as formulated in the International Conference of Population and Development, held in Cairo, in 1994, and in the 4th World Conference on Women: Action for Equality, Development and Peace, held in Beijing, in 1995. “These conferences represent major progress regarding the treatment of issues linked to reproduction and sexuality, taking into account the principle of a lay State, the advocacy of citizenship and the intensification of democratic relations.”

Sexual and reproductive rights, she highlights, are one of mankind’s achievements and are also an ethical milestone in issues related to gender, reproduction, abortion, and family planning, among others. “Recognizing a person’s autonomy to make decisions about issues that regard his or her reproductive and sexual life were the key elements of the Cairo and Beijing platforms. These platforms were recognized by the international community and Brazil is one of their signatories, i.e., one of the countries that committed to incorporate these principles into its social and political agenda, as well as into its legal order.”

The issue of criminality involves several important variables, many of which are related to the ineffectiveness of many government actions, according to sociologist and Professor Maria Inês Caetano Ferreira, whose doctorate focused on homicides in the area of Santo Amaro, in São Paulo. “The Rio de Janeiro State governor’s discourse, unfortunately, helps to disseminate prejudice against those who live in shantytowns and poor neighborhoods. This is wrong, because most of the inhabitants in these areas are not criminals,” she estimates.

For Maria Inês, it is difficult and dangerous to also establish a direct connection between unemployment and/or poverty and criminality. Traditional poverty, she says, which was fairly common in rural areas of Brazil decades ago, does not lead to the violence that one currently witnesses in major cities such as Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. “There are variables that should be taken into account regarding this theme. However, it is not difficult to conclude that fighting  arms and the drug traffic, for instance, lead directly to the current phenomenon of violence.”

Violence and criminality are themes that may go together hand-in-hand, but that are not identical, according to her. In her thesis, she sought to understand the reasons behind the high homicide rates on the outskirts of the southern part of the São Paulo State capital. She investigated deaths among family, friends and neighbors, and the many reasons  for homicide. She concluded that this population’s precarious material and legal participation in society leads to an unstable and vulnerable existence, against which the population’s only alternative is to organize   support networks anchored into an order incapable of answering for the damage caused by such precariousness.

The researcher highlights that the interpretation of violence is related to the position of groups within society. However, the  Rio de Janeiro State Governor does not represent merely one group, but the state’s entire society. “His position is quite conservative, since he regards the use of force as the most effective strategy for fighting crime. Using force, of course, against the populations in certain regions only. Perhaps advocating this position pleases a broad section of the population. The problem is if the use of force implies  an abuse of power and breach of the law.”

As a suggestion for reducing criminality, Maria Inês is more inclined toward  “a minimum” level of force, which would help a lot: making effective use of the police force, within the limits of the law, to fight the drug trade and, above all, to establish a positive relationship between the State and the population. Thus, the researcher explains, one should advocate that areas such as shantytowns, for example, should not become  an arena where groups that resort to force become the “lords”, imposing their own “laws”, and a hierarchical, unequal and violent order upon the inhabitants in general. “To this end, the supply of public services and equipment is essential.”

The author of a thesis about incarcerated women, sociologist Hélio Roberto Braunstein fears that the  proposal for the legalization of abortion put forth by the governor of Rio de Janeiro State may unleash public policies along the lines of eugenics, “whose subliminal rationale is based on birth control in poor families, which might be regarded as threatening and bent on crime, according to positivistic thinking,  currently on the rise in Brazil and worldwide, incidentally.” Therefore, something that might be suitable as a healthcare policy and  regarding  women’s rights in reality may reveal and unleash a strategy of dominating the poorer women and families in Rio.

Braunstein comments that there is “clearly some confusion regarding this  proposal, because the issue of abortion legalization is, or should be, discussed within the context of public healthcare policies and women’s rights, rather than as a public safety issue”. In his research, he notes, there are no specific data about abortion, but there is a quantitative piece of information concerning the issue that, to his mind, is extremely important in a qualitative analysis, namely, the number of children of the 353 women in his sample (who were then in prison).

His study shows that 46.17% of the women prisoners interviewed had no more than two children and that 21.25% had no children at all. Only 13.03% of the interviewees had four or more children. Other data that he regards as important show that 61.48% of them had already practiced a professional activity prior to going to prison and that 25.21% of them had started to work very early, before the age of fourteen.

His professional experience of more than fifteen years involving penal institutions for adults and teenagers and, especially, his research, indicate to Braunstein that the chief causes of criminality in Brazil are connected to the consistent and permanent lack of integrated public policies in the spheres of education, healthcare, culture, sports, justice, economics, labor, social welfare and public safety. “As in the case of the  Rio de Janeiro Governor, the proposals are narrow, emergency-oriented, fragmented and inconsistent.”

Fighting crime, he explains, must be conducted on two levels. First, the remedial and emergency-oriented level must consist of  permanent public policies for fighting drug trafficking, the use of arms, and corruption in the widest range of spheres. Then, there is policing. Furthermore, one must have a suitable punishment policy, geared toward social reintegration rather than  merely punitive and a reproducer of violence.

Another important aspect that should be prioritized, as Braunstein stresses, is the treatment of people who suffer from substance abuse, as part of a public healthcare policy, in addition to taking  action for the employability of the population. One must also, on a second level, which he indicated as the main one, pursue medium- and long-term preventive actions, which result from consistent, permanent and integrated State policies. In  this discussion, there is no room for talk about abortion.