Since the 1970s Brazil has experienced a remarkable decline in fertility. This decline has come about mainly due to illegal abortion and female sterilisation. The present study was conducted in a low-income neighbourhood in Recife, Northeast Brazil, where 37 percent of all women of reproductive age had been sterilised. For these women fertility control was not a question of constructing a prosperous future. Having few children might improve a family’s chances in relation to economy and upward mobility, but for most women the need to stop childbearing was related to their present situation. Children needed food, clothes and motherly care. When food and clothes were scarce, and the parents quarrelling, motherly patience was difficult to muster, and the women felt unable to direct their children away from the dangers of the street. The street represented a risk not only to the children, but also to the rest of the family. Recife has one of the world’s highest death rates among 15-19 year old men due to firearms, mainly in the low income areas. Due to fear families involved risk social exclusion. On top, the public discourse on parenthood cast these deaths as results of bad upbringing. Being responsible for their upbringing, but left without means to do it properly, the mothers feared losing all that confirmed their worth as persons: their loved ones, their worth as neighbours or friends worthy of recognition and, due to an indirect linking of irresponsibility and violence, their worth as citizens of the modern Brazilian society. Making ends meet economically was only the immediate concern – what was at stake was something more fundamental: Being fertile was an Achilles’ heel, a weakness that under certain conditions was directly associated with death, whether symbolic, in the form of social exclusion, or undeniably real. Sterilisation had become a means to counteract this weakness.
Main Research Area:
Reproductive Disruptions: Childlessness, Adoption, and Other Reproductive Complexities, 2005