40 Days for Life expands to Brazil and Colombia

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It was a summer day in Bogotá, Colombia, when Katharine Britton of Fredericksburg witnessed a young woman sobbing as she boarded a taxi in Teusaquillo, a neighborhood famous for its prevalence of abortion clinics.

"She was probably crying because she just had an abortion," said Britton, the Latin American outreach director for 40 Days for Life and a third-year student at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

She and her father, Matt Britton, board chairman of 40 Days for Life, went to South America over the summer to bring the organization to Bogotá and Rio de Janeiro. The organization's premise is simple: Participants pray and fast outside of abortion clinics for 40 days, a method promoted for its "peaceful and educational presence."

In a recent 40 Days for Life e-newsletter, Campaign Director Shawn Carney wrote the following to subscribers: "Your peaceful presence is the last - often unexpected - sign of hope. But for the women who go through the abortion, your presence is also the first sign of mercy. That is why it's important to be there before, during and after the abortion."

This year, the international campaign runs from Sept. 23 through Nov. 1, with groups in the United States, Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Cameroon, Ghana, Nigeria, Croatia, Latvia, Romania, Slovenia and, now, Colombia and Brazil, including a total of 307 cities.

In Colombia and Brazil, abortion is illegal except in cases of rape, concern for the health of the mother and certainty that a child will be born with major deformities. In order to strategize for their campaign, Britton and her father had to be on-site in both countries, visiting areas known for underground clinics, meeting with local pro-life leaders, touring Catholic schools and working to understand what Britton called the "culture of abortion" there.

"The mothers (seeking abortion) in Bogotá come from every social sphere," said Britton. "There are working women, women in school. There are a lot of people who are poor and can't afford to have another child. Most of the women I saw were between the ages of 17 and 28."

Teusaquillo alone is said to have 75 abortion clinics. Another neighborhood in Bogotá, Santa Isabel, is rumored to have 20.

In Brazil, abortion clinics are less formal, with women seeking abortions in the private homes of people colloquially known as "witch doctors."

"I met some women who had done undercover work in the clinics to see what they were like," said Britton. "It was quite jarring to learn that abortion happens in this way in Colombia and Brazil."

She added, "Colombia has a very developed pro-life movement. In Brazil, the movement is much more unknown. Brazil is predominantly pro-life by polls but people are not that way in real life."

What Britton observed follows historical trends in Latin America.

"In the context of many Latin American nations having some of the world's strictest laws on abortions yet being the region with the world's highest rates of abortion, the Catholic Church has been at the vanguard of the pro-life movement, especially in Colombia, Brazil and Mexico," said Andrew Chesnut, a professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. "Interestingly in a region where historically there has been tension between Catholics and Protestants in several countries, such as Brazil, the churches have joined forces in the pro-life campaign, opposing legislation that would lift restrictions on abortion. In general, the pro-life movement isn't as organized and disciplined in Latin America as it is in the U.S."

According to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research organization, an estimated 44 percent of all unintended pregnancies in Colombia end in abortion. Of these more than 400,000 estimated abortions, less than 0.08 percent were reported as legal procedures. The international organization Human Rights Watch reports that every year between 1 and 4 million abortions occur in Brazil, the fifth most populous country in the world.

Yet Britton and her father were able to find two experienced pro-life advocates to lead campaigns in both countries: Pamela Delgado in Bogotá and Maria Vitoria in Rio de Janeiro, both of whom have made it their mission to minister to women in need.

Thus far, 40 Days for Life has reported more than "200 babies saved" at clinics where the organization's vigils are taking place this year.

"The Planned Parenthood controversy has made abortion an even more relevant issue, something people are talking about at the dinner table, and many people feel called to act," said Britton.

Find out more

To learn more about the 40 Days for Life campaign, go to 40daysforlife.com.

Stoddard can be reached at cstoddard@catholicherald.com.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015