Comparing Passive Infanticide vs. Abortion Essay

Comparing Passive Infanticide vs. Abortion: How Religion and Racial Prejudice Influence Cultural Stagnancy and Social Inequality in Northeastern Brazil

Social inequality is a raging plight in many third world countries. The gap between rich and poor had continued to increase over the years. Even the onset of the industrial and technological era has not decreased this gap.

Capitalism, although defined as “a social system based on the principle of individual rights” (, appears to have further fueled the growth of this inequality. The respect for individual rights has become severely skewed towards those who can afford to fight for it. Studies conducted on third world economies claim that “the world expansion of capitalism is accompanied by increasing inequality in social distribution at the periphery.” (Maldevelopment – Anatomy of a global failure, ch 5)

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A third world country often faced with the consequences of this brutal situation is Brazil. Brazil’s reputation in social and cultural issues is terrible, although most of it had been plain exaggeration. (Schwartzman 29) Brazil’s citizens do not all live in third world conditions, some do revel in first world luxuries. But the social divide is too huge that the country is unable to escape from its third-world image.

Brazil is often portrayed as a place where violence runs rampant. As depicted in the film “City of God”, criminality in Brazil is a problem the government has almost given up on. Resigned to the thought that the violence cannot be ended, they had concentrated their efforts to containing the violence in the slums, further aggravating the social unrest in the country. The rich sleeps securely in their mansions, while the poor are dying in their sleep in their shanties.

City of God depicts in great detail how the people living in the slums of Brazil go about the difficulties of their daily lives. Gang violence rips the community apart; children enlist themselves to die; and innocent people die everyday.

This criminality and violence is just one of the effects of the social inequality in the country. Evidence of this great inequality can be seen in the contrast between the elegant apartments in Ipanema facing the slums in the hills. (Schwartzman 29) Brazil’s government, even with its “large and well-developed agricultural, mining, manufacturing, and service sectors”, (Central Intelligence Agency website) has been unable to remedy this rift. As Veras (1) put it, Brazil itself is “not a poor country, but a country of many poor.”

For a country with a predominantly “white” population as well as belonging to the top ten countries with the largest economies, “Brazil ranks among the world’s highest nations in the Gini coefficient index of inequality assessment.” (Wikipedia) Brazil is exceeded only by South Africa and Malawi in this assessment of 92 participating countries. (Veras 2)

But where does this inequality really stem from?

            Perhaps a part of this inequality can be attributed to cultural diversity. In the nineteenth century, the Portuguese colonization schemes involved attracting “white” immigrants who settled mostly in the Southern region of the countries. Meanwhile, in the Northeast regions, sugarcane plantation owners brought in African slaves to do their manual labor. (Wikipedia)

            But while the South flourished, due perhaps to eugenics and the Brazilian elite’s “desire to ‘whiten’ the country so that it would develop economically”, the North remained in the shadow of slavery and poverty. The cities in the South often blamed migrants from the North for the high crime rates in their community. (Culture of Brazil)

            Migrants from the North come to the South to escape the hunger and water shortages of their towns and settle in the slums at the periphery of urban communities.

            So does it then follow from this wide gap between regions with different cultural backgrounds that the cultural diversity of Brazil is the prevailing cause of the social inequality? Why is it that the Northeast part of the country is in depression while the South flourishes? Is it just coincidence that the Northeast is predominantly inhabited by Afro-Brazilians, while the South is inhabited by the “whites”? Or is there something to be learned by studying the situations of “white” Brazilians versus the “brown or black” Brazilians? In the face of modernization, when globalization and the worldwide web have almost erased cultural borders, has racial discrimination doomed the Afro-Brazilians of Northeast Brazil?

             My research attempts to trace the roots of this inequality to cultural diversity by specifically studying the “slave” culture of the Northeast Brazil. For this research, I draw upon the previous research conducted by Professor Nancy Scheper-Hughes on infant mortality in Northeast Brazil. Infant mortality is one of the major indicators of social inequality. When starvation and dehydration are a daily affair, the children are the first to die.

Previous Research

“Most victims are waked quickly and with a minimum of ceremony. No tears are shed, and the neighborhood children form a tiny procession, carrying the baby to the town graveyard where it will join a multitude of others. Although a few fresh flowers may be scattered over the tiny grave, no stone or wooden cross will mark the place, and the same spot will be reused within a few months’ time. The mother will never visit the grave, which soon becomes an anonymous one.” (Death Without Weeping: Has poverty ravaged mother love in the shantytowns of Brazil? 12)

            In this single paragraph, Professor Nancy Scheper-Hughes echoes the sentiment of her book, Death Without Weeping: Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil.

            In her research, Professor Scheper-Hughes examines the effect of poverty on the women of Bom Jesus de Mata. She describes the attitudes of the women to their infants, how they sometimes go unnamed until the mothers are sure they are strong enough to survive; how weak infants are ignored by the mothers; how affection is rationed to the older and stronger children; and how unceremonious the burial of an infant is. The death of an infant in Bom Jesus de Mata no longer concerns its community, and the act of breeding, birthing, and burying has almost become a routine.

            “Life expectancy in the Northeast is only forty years, largely because of the appallingly high rate of infant and child mortality. Approximately one million children in Brazil under the age of five die each year. The children of the Northeast, especially those born in shantytowns on the periphery of urban life, are at a very high risk of death. In these areas, children are born without the traditional protection of breast-feeding, subsistence gardens, stable marriages, and multiple adult caretakers that exists in the interior. In the hillside shantytowns that spring up around cities or, in this case, interior market towns, marriages are brittle, single parenting is the norm, and women are frequently forced into the shadow economy of domestic work in the homes of the rich or into unprotected and oftentimes ‘scab’ wage labor on the surrounding sugar plantations, where they clear land for planting and weed for a pittance, sometimes less than a dollar a day. The women of the Alto may not bring their babies with them into the homes of the wealthy, where the often-sick infants are considered sources of contamination, and they cannot carry the little ones to the riverbanks where they wash clothes because the river is heavily infested with schistosomes and other deadly parasites. Nor can they carry their young children to the plantations, which are often several miles away. At wages of a dollar a day, the women of the Alto cannot hire baby sitters. Older children who are not in school will sometimes serve as somewhat indifferent caretakers. But any child not in school is also expected to find wage work. In most cases, babies are simply left at home alone, the door securely fastened. And so many also die alone and unattended,” Scheper-Hughes writes. (Death without weeping: has poverty ravaged motherly love in the shantytown of Brazil? 8)

            In her book, Scheper-Hughes clearly depicted the rural life of the poor citizens living in the shantytowns of Northeast Brazil. But her research was mainly pointed towards organizing statistics for infant deaths and describing women’s attitudes towards their situations.

            Her research painted a portrait of what poverty did to the people but made no attempts to further dissect the causes of the situations that the women faced in their everyday lives. She described the infant deaths but made no further inquiry into the health practices of the women of these shantytowns. She pointed out the causes of deaths, such as starvation, diarrhea, dehydration, but delved no further into what brought about these causes.

Although, much of these situations were brought about by geological factors, owing a significant fraction to economic causes, there is more to be explored into the situation of the people of northeast Brazil.

            For example, of the children who survive, how many were able to receive elementary education? Secondary? Did any of them ever reach college? What fate awaited those who survived? Why do these women keep getting pregnant even though they could barely support the existing children? What role does religion play in the decisions made by these women?

            My research aims to take a step further from Scheper-Hughes research by looking into the environmental factors that affect the decisions made by the women of Bom Jesus de Mata.

Research Plan

            My first point of study shall be religion. How devout are the people of Bom Jesus de Mata and how receptive are they to new ideas that contradict their beliefs? Has their strict adherence to archaic, almost ridiculous, religious beliefs caused the cultural stagnancy that has doomed them to live lives of indifference in the face of death?

            Religion plays a vital role in the development of many societies, but in most cases, religion evolves along with society. Some teachings and strict tenets of Catholicism may no longer be applicable in the modern society

            Religion has a tendency to reject ideas that go against its norms. Take Catholicism and birth control for example. When artificial birth control was first introduced, the Church was strongly against it. What stand do the women of Bom Jesus de Mata take on the subject of birth control? To what extent do they practice birth control and by what means?

            In Scheper-Hughes study, the women of Bom Jesus de Mata do practice birth control, but only to a certain degree. Although they dread bringing an infant that is likely to die into the world, they would rather give birth to the child and allow it to die naturally than perform an abortion.

            It would appear that the women in these situations perform their reproductive duties simply to ensure a continuance of their way of life. They have little regard for their own health or that of their child, unless the child exhibits a zest for life or a will to live. The women in these cases continue to reproduce in hopes that the children will be able to aid them in their livelihood someday.

            But little is done to improve the status of the children, poverty drives them to set aside education and instead find work or employment to add to the family income. Free education and health assistance are available to them is limited, and so they grow up with the same beliefs and information inadequacy as their parents, continuing the vicious cycle of reproduction and death. (Scheper-Hughes 16)

            My second point of study shall be racial prejudice. I intend to conduct a statistical research on whether racial prejudice is chronic in the country and to what extent. Is preference given to “whites” when it comes to employment? How are basic services such as education and health distributed between the races?

Research Methods

            Scheper-Hughes research methods consisted mainly of interviews, clerical data gathering, and observation of the people’s daily lives. I intend to employ the same methods in my research. In addition, I plan to conduct field experiments to verify the degree of racial prejudice that the Afro-Brazilians face in their daily undertakings.

            Scheper-Hughes research was largely emotion-driven. She presented her research in the light of her own emotions and preconceptions as a woman. She did, however, succeed in reaching her target audience and gain the impact that she intended, for her work did appeal to the emotions.

            However, I plan to conduct a more data-driven research. I believe that the anthropologist must present his/her research in an objective manner.  The anthropologist must remove from him/herself any emotional attachments to his/her subjects. This is especially important in my study as I shall be dealing with racial discrimination, a topic that must be presented in the most impartial view possible.


Amin, Samir. Maldevelopment: anatomy of a global failure. Tokyo: United Nations University Press. 1990. ;;

Central Intelligence Agency website, “CIA Factbook”, retrieved 22 July 2007 ;;

Culture of Brazil. Countries and their cultures ;;

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. Death Without Weeping: Has poverty ravaged mother love in the shantytowns of Brazil? Natural History, October 1989, pp. 8, 10, 12, 14, 16

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil. CA: University of California Press, 1992.

Schwartzman, Simon. Brazil: The Social Agenda. Daedalus, Spring 2000, pp. 29-56.

Veras, Maura Pardini Bicudo. Brazilian Inequalities: Poverty, Social Inclusion and Exclusion in São Paulo. Paper presented in the Colloquy Hexapolis IV – Providence – USA, in the Research Group SIRS – International Contemporary Metropolis Comparison

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., retrieved 22 July 2007 ;;


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