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In Brazil, Where Abortion Is Illegal, a Domestic Worker Faces Public Scrutiny After Abandoning Her Child

Sandra Queiroz surrounded by the media as she is taken into custody in São Paulo. Photo: Screenshot/TV

The mother is taken into custody in São Paulo and is harassed by the media. Photo: Screenshot/TV

It all started on October 4th, a Sunday evening, when the concierge of a building in Higienópolis, an affluent neighborhood in São Paulo, was heading to church. He heard a cry and found, underneath a tree, a newborn baby, wrapped in blankets and placed inside a paper bag of “Au Pied de Cochon,” a famous Parisian restaurant.

The media made a big fuss about it. The infant girl became known as “the baby of Higienópolis.” Police officers posed for photos with the child. The concierge who found her gave interviews and was treated like a hero. The father never came into the picture.

Later, a CCTV video of a woman leaving the child by the tree surfaced and was circulated widely. There she was, the mother, the villain: what a monster, people would cry on social media; how can someone abandon a defenseless baby?

Soon they found her: she was identified as Sandra Queiroz, 37, who works as a live-in maid for a family in a nearby apartment. She was born in the Brazilian Northeastern state of Bahia, and like many women from that underdeveloped part of the country, moved to São Paulo to work as domestic help. She already had two children: a 17-year-old boy, who lives in her hometown with her parents, and a 3-year-old, who lives with her in the house of her employers, who never noticed her latest pregnancy.

She gave birth on the afternoon of that Sunday, on her own, in a bathroom in the servant's quarters (a common space in Brazilian homes, even apartments), after her bosses had left to have lunch.

Sandra Queiroz didn't have it easy from the police—or the public. She was detained on the following Wednesday while taking her 3-year-old to school. At the police station, she was harassed by reporters, who asked her “why did you abandon the child?,” to which she replied that she did it “out of desperation.” Though she was later released, Queiroz was charged with abandonment of incapable and now faces up to 3 years in jail.

Sandra Queiroz's situation highlights the many challenges Brazil faces with regards to women's rights. Abortion is illegal in the country (except in cases of proven rape and life risk to the mother), but about 1 million abortions are performed in Brazil each year and are among the main causes of maternal deaths. Clandestine clinics charge about 2,000 USD for a safe procedure, which means that the majority of women who die performing abortions at home are poor.

Giving a child away for adoption in Brazil isn't so simple. A mother has to attend an interview at Child Protective Services, provide them with a health certificate for the baby (which can only be issued in a hospital), and state her reasons for not wanting to keep the baby. In the end, only a judge will decide its fate.

"The rich abort, the poor die". September 28th is the day of decriminalization of abortion in Latin America and the Caribbean. Shared on Facebook by Levante Popular da Juventude (Popular Youth Levant)

“The rich abort, the poor die”. September 28th was the day of decriminalization of abortion in Latin America and the Caribbean. Shared on Facebook by Levante Popular da Juventude (Popular Youth Levant).

But the news on what happened to Sandra Queiroz revealed something that is, perhaps, even more pervasive: a culture that favors judgment over empathy and who punishes women's sexuality.

Many people pointed out how the media portrayed the whole thing. In a widely shared Facebook post, Lucas Bulgarelli wrote:

No Estadão: “Polícia detém mãe que abandonou bebê recém nascido em Higienópolis”.
Não coube no título que essa mãe habitava uma minúscula senzala próxima à área de serviço, em Higienópolis.
Não coube que ela abandonou o bebê para não perder o emprego.
Não coube o pai.
Não coube que seus patrões ficaram 9 meses sem perceber que ela estava grávida.
Não coube que ela fez o parto sozinha no banheiro de empregada.
Não coube a única frase dela que o jornal deixou que soubéssemos: “fiz por desespero”.
Não coube que ela esperou até que o bebê fosse achado, enquanto corria para chegar em casa antes da patroa.
Não coube a outra filha de 3 anos, que agora está na senzala sem a mãe.
Não coube que a poucas quadras dali existe uma clínica clandestina de aborto para a elite paulistana.
Não coube sequer o nome dos seus senhores.
Mas coube que ela foi presa e que a polícia agiu porque, em Higienópolis, quando se é escrava, a impunidade fala mais alto do que qualquer hipocrisia.

 In Estadão [newspaper]: “Police detains mother who abandoned newborn in Higienópolis.”

It didn't fit into the headline that her mother inhabited a servant's quarters [senzala] close to the kitchen, in Higienópolis.
It didn't fit that she abandoned the baby so she wouldn't lose her job.
It didn't fit that she gave birth alone in a bathroom.
It didn't fit her only quote in the whole story: “I've done it out of desperation.”
It didn't fit that she waited on the street until the baby was found, while she rushed to arrive home before her employers.
It didn't fit her other daughter, the 3-year-old, who is now in the senzala without her mother.
It didn't fit that a few blocks from there there is a clandestine abortion clinic for São Paulo's elite.
It didn't even fit the name of her masters.

Blogger Juliana Cunha commented on another story published in the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo:

Acho muito violenta essa imagem do policial salvador do bebê. Muito violento que a matéria fale em patrões, mas no final só apareça ali a patroa, tanto no título quanto no texto. Muito violento que divulguem o vídeo (não tem informação alguma no vídeo, só tem a vergonha da mulher).

Uma coisa bonita no jornalismo é reparar quem diz, quem alega e quem simplesmente faz. Repare: se o entrevistado diz que entrou em desespero (no caso, a mãe), eu não tenho como saber se ele de fato entrou em desespero ou se disse isso apenas para aliviar sua barra. Mas se o outro entrevistado diz que estava indo para a missa (o zelador), eu também não tenho como saber se ele de fato estava indo para a missa ou se disse isso apenas para parecer ainda mais bondoso.

A rigor, quase toda informação dada por entrevistados teria que ser acompanhada de “alega fulano”. No entanto, cenas explícitas de ideologia em toda matéria: observe sempre quem alega, quem “diz ter” e quem simplesmente é acreditado pelo texto.

Uma mãe que é presa levando a filha para a escola diz ter entrado em desespero quando decidiu abandonar seu bebê na rua.

Um zelador herói (nada contra o zelador e seu heroísmo) simplesmente vai à missa, porque é isso que zeladores heróis fazem. E isso que mães ignóbeis dizem.

I think this image of the baby-saving policeman is very violent. It's very violent that the story talks about employers, but in the end only the female employer is referred to, in the headline and the story. It's very violent that they would disclose the video (there isn't a single piece of information in the video, there's only the woman's shame).

An interesting thing in journalism is to notice who says, who claims and who simply does. Pay attention: if a source says she was ‘desperate’ (in this case, the mother), there is no way I am able to know if she really was desperate or if she just said this to justify her actions. But if the other source says he was going to church (the concierge), I also don't know if he was really going to church or if he said this to look even more honorable.

In theory, every information given by sources should be accompanied by “claims so-and-so”. However, there are explicit instances of ideology in the whole story: observe who claims, who “allegedly does” and who is backed by the text.

A mother who is detained while taking her daughter to school says she was desperate when she decided to abandon her child in the street.

A hero concierge (nothing against the concierge and his heroism) simply goes to church, because that's what heroes do. And that's what ignoble mothers say.

In the same newspaper, columnist Claudia Colucci pointed out how countries like Italy reintroduced the concept of the “foundling wheel“, a mechanism widely used in European hospitals and churches since the Middle Ages that allowed mothers to give away children in anonymity.

Foi pensando nessas mulheres que dão à luz sozinhas e depois deixam seus bebês nas ruas que a Itália reinventou a “roda dos expostos”, um local seguro em que a mãe pode deixar o bebê e ir embora sem se identificar.

Ao menos três hospitais filantrópicos em Roma e Milão dispõem de berços aquecidos, com vídeo e alarme para avisar da chegada do bebê. Só em Milão são abandonados em média 50 bebês por ano. Muitos são filhos de imigrantes, mas há também bebês italianos, cujas mães preferem doá-los a vê-los passar por necessidades.

O tribunal italiano espera 20 dias para que a mãe se arrependa e reclame o filho, antes de levá-lo para adoção.

No Brasil, a “roda dos enjeitados” funcionou até o fim da década de 1940, principalmente no Rio e em São Paulo. Na Santa Casa de São Paulo, o método existiu de 1825 e 1948. É nesse hospital que está o “bebê de Higienópolis” desde o último domingo.

It was thinking of those women who give birth on their own and then leave their babies on the streets that Italy reinvented the “foundling wheel,” a safe place where a mother can take the baby and leave without having to identify herself.

At least three philanthropic hospitals in Rome and Milan have warm cradles, with video and alarm to announce the baby's arrival. In Milan only, about 50 babies are abandoned per year. Many are children of immigrants, but there are also Italian babies whose mothers would rather give them away than see them go through hardship.

The Italian court waits 20 days for the mother to regret and reclaim the child before putting it up for adoption.

In Brazil, the foundling wheel existed until the end of the 1940's, mainly in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. The Santa Casa de São Paulo hospital had one from 1825 to 1948. It's in this hospital that “the baby of Higienópolis” has been since last Sunday.

One media outlet managed to reach out to one of Sandra Queiroz's employers, and the woman said that Sandra is still at her house and, had she known of the pregnancy, she wouldn't have fired her.

A close friend of Queiroz also told the press that the child's father, with whom Sandra has had a short-lived relationship, was indeed informed of the pregnancy by Sandra, but “didn't care.” This week, he told reporters that he is “not sure if the child is his.”

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