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Jandira dos Santos Cruz

Jandira dos Santos Cruz was terrified. In her last text messages, she pleaded with a friend to pray for her. It seems she had good reason to be afraid: The 27-year-old Rio secretary got into a car with strangers on Aug. 26, bound for an illegal abortion clinic, and never came home.

Now police say a burned and dismembered torso, missing its teeth and found in the trunk of a car matching the description of the one Ms. Cruz took to the clinic, may be hers. Nursing assistant Rosemere Aparecida Ferreira, who is believed to be the clinic employee who arranged Ms. Cruz's abortion, and her husband, police officer Edilson dos Santos, were arrested Thursday night in a city three hours away from Rio.

And the subject of abortion – publicly decried, and yet widely sought – is once more in the news in Brazil.

While this country presents a hedonistic image in its tourism marketing, it remains at its core deeply socially conservative.

In opinion polls, 80 per cent of Brazilians say they believe abortion should be illegal. (The current law permits abortion in cases of rape or where the woman's life is in danger from the pregnancy.)

And yet hundreds of thousands of women have abortions here every year. While it is impossible to gather precise data on an illegal procedure, "the most reasonable estimate is that it's between 800,000 and 1.2 million abortions a year," said Jefferson Drezett, a Sao Paulo gynecologist who has researched the subject for more than a decade. "Even if it's half that, 400,000, it's still an extreme number."

An estimated 250,000 women a year seek medical help in public clinics for the complications of an illegal abortion.

"We have a law that punishes something that happens very often in the country, that does not stop abortions happening, and therefore does not protect the fetus, and puts women in a dangerous position," said Dr. Drezett, a member of a national Study Group on Abortion made up of researchers.

Police say it will take nearly a month before DNA tests confirm the identity of the charred corpse found in the car, and the investigation into Ms. Cruz's disappearance is ongoing. In off-the-record interviews, officers have indicated that they strongly suspect that the body will prove to be hers, that she died of complications of the abortion, and that the clinic operators were trying to dispose of the evidence.

On Friday afternoon, a judge ordered the arrest of five more people in connection with the case. No specific charges have been made public. Ms. Ferreira and Mr. Dos Santos were each caught twice last year in raids on illegal clinics, and charged with performing abortion on consenting women (the women having the abortions were also criminally charged). The pair were at large pending their trials, which can take years to be scheduled in the slow-moving Brazilian judicial system. Speaking off the record, a police officer told reporters that Ms. Ferreira has admitted to assisting during Ms. Cruz's abortion and taking her money, but denies knowledge of her death. He said Ms. Ferreira claims that a clinic colleague told her Ms. Cruz experienced complications after terminating her pregnancy, but learned of her death only in the media.

In the most comprehensive national survey, done in 2010, 15 per cent of Brazilian women 18 to 39 years old said they had had an abortion. "It gives you a snapshot: At that moment, there were five million women in the country who had had at least one," said Debora Diniz, a professor of bioethics at the University of Brasilia and a lead researcher on the study. Asked face to face, one in 15 women said they had had an abortion; asked by "secret ballot," the figure climbed to nearly one in six, she said.

"The 'correct answer' in Brazil is that abortion should be illegal, so when you ask women, that's what they say – they want to be identified with the moral standard,"  Prof. Diniz said. "To have an abortion is to be a bad mother, to deny motherhood, to deny nature – it's a sin. It's not easy for us to deny the stigma of abortion."

Ms. Cruz's sister, Joyce dos Santos, said in an interview that she feels her sister shares some of the blame for her fate, for choosing to abort, as do those who provide and facilitate the illegal abortions. "If there weren't any open doors, she wouldn't have gone through with it."

At 27, Ms. Cruz had two daughters, aged 12 and 9, from a marriage that ended in divorce. (It was her ex-husband, with whom she was still close, who took her to meet the clinic pickup car and to whom she sent her last panicked texts.) Members of her family, who are evangelical Christians, now say they tried to dissuade her from ending the pregnancy, which resulted from a brief relationship.

Brazil will hold national elections on Oct. 5; Ms. Cruz's case, however grim, is unlikely to change the political consensus on abortion. Running for office the first time in 2010, the current president, Dilma Rousseff, cautiously expressed doubts about criminalization – only to find herself under heavy attack from the Catholic and evangelical churches – and then came out in favour of the current law.

In this election, she is in a neck-and-neck race with Marina Silva, an evangelical Christian who has said she personally believes abortion should be illegal. About 25 per cent of Brazilians are now evangelical Christians, the churches (most of which are led by wealthy men) are wielding growing political clout, and their lobby in Congress has repeatedly tabled legislation to try to end the abortion exceptions. Ms. Rousseff and Ms. Silva have said they are in favour of keeping the law as it is; Ms. Silva says she favours a national referendum on the law.

"When Marina Silva says her goal is to have a national poll on abortion, she knows exactly what she is doing: People will say they are against it even though they have needed it," Prof. Diniz said.

"When you ask gynecologists if they are in favour of abortion being legal, only 15 per cent say yes … when you ask if they have ever helped a relative in this situation, almost 40 per cent say yes. And, when you ask if she has gone through one or if he has ever had a girlfriend or a wife have one, 80 per cent say yes," Dr. Drezett said.

Ms. Cruz's family says she was 14 weeks pregnant, and she paid $2,200 to the person who had arranged her abortion. "She paid a lot of money, but not even paying gives you access to safe abortion," said Beatriz Galli, the Rio-based Latin America policy adviser for Ipas, a global reproductive rights advocacy organization.

Ms. Galli noted that while wealthy Brazilian women fly to the United States or Mexico for abortions, poor women are forced to use illegal clinics or black market drugs.

The national survey found that, in urban areas, half of women do not go to clinics, but rather induce abortions at home using the drug Misoprostol, bought from a connection in their communities. "How to perform an abortion is women's culture in Brazil – it's passed from mothers to daughters and sisters and friends," Prof. Diniz said.

The increasingly conservative public climate on abortion has resulted in more and more police raids lately, and as a consequence many women must do what Ms. Cruz apparently did – meet a stranger at a public place, get in a car, surrender her phone.

Meanwhile, even women who meet the rare conditions for legal abortion face often insurmountable barriers. Hospital staff may require the woman to show "medical proof" she was raped, or ask for a police report although the law doesn't require either. In 2012, Ms. Galli said, just 1,626 legal abortions were performed in a country of 203 million people.