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People participate in the SlutWalk protest on Copacabana Beach, where pope Francis will celebrate mass at night, in Rio de Janeiro, July, 2013. The sign reads "No more criminalization of women, abortion is a right."  © REUTERS/Pilar Olivares
Susana, 25, was breastfeeding when she became pregnant with a second child in Recife. It was unplanned. Her son was born with microcephaly–a condition in which the infant’s head is smaller than expected.  

She was among the nearly 100 women and girls we interviewed in 2016 while researching the impacts of the Zika outbreak in Northeastern Brazil.

After the baby was born, she did not receive any family planning counseling. She and her husband looked on the internet and decided he would have a vasectomy. At the public hospital, staff told them that they had suspended vasectomies for budget reasons. Yet, they were performing tubal ligations for women, a more complicated and expensive procedure. As it is often the case, it was the woman who had to bear the burden of responsibility for contraception.

I was the same age as Susana, yet felt light-years away from her. I am a middle-class professional who has always had access to comprehensive health services at private clinics. Susana lives in a poor community, and relies on the overloaded public health system.

More than two thirds of the mothers told us their most recent pregnancy had been unplanned. Many of those moms were still children themselves. In Brazil, women and girls ages 10 to 19 gave birth to almost a fifth of children born in 2015.

But even those who do go to public health clinics encounter barriers in getting information and contraceptive methods–especially long-term ones. Some women told us that they missed doses because clinics were out of pills or injections or the centers were closed due to strikes.

The limited possibilities for obtaining an abortion makes matters worse. Abortion is only legal in Brazil in cases of rape, to save a woman’s life, or when the fetus has anencephaly–a fatal congenital brain disorder. And yet, an estimated half a million women in Brazil had abortions in 2015, according to a recent study. Thousands seek clandestine and often unsafe procedures that carry the danger of infection, hemorrhage and death. Poor women are most at risk.

Brazil should ensure all women can obtain comprehensive contraceptive methods and information –not just a privileged few– and can fully exercise their reproductive and other human rights without resorting to life-threatening procedures. On the Global Day of Action for Access to Safe and Legal Abortion, we should remind the Brazilian authorities how important it is for them to respect a woman´s right to make independent reproductive decisions, without interference.

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