Abortion is illegal in Brazil except when a woman’s life is in danger or if the woman has been raped. Public hospitals in Brazil, largely as a result of the work of the strong feminist movement in that country, have been steadily improving abortion services for women who have been raped.
A case in point is the abortion performed Wednesday on a nine-year-old girl who was carrying twins. The girl had been raped by her stepfather, who is now in jail awaiting trial. Doctors at the public hospital where the abortion was performed noted that the girl who weighs very little and simply could not sustain the pregnancy which posed a serious risk to her life.
Stories like this are not uncommon in Latin America. Family planning counselors from Nicaragua to Argentina report seeing pregnant women from nine- to thirteen-years-old regularly. In 2003, international attention was focused on “Rosa,” another nine-year-old in Nicaragua who was also raped and was lucky enough to get a legal abortion. Abortion is now totally illegal in Nicaragua – even for nine-year-old rape victims.
Paulina, a 13-year-old Mexican girl who had been raped in late 1999, was not so lucky. She sought an abortion and was denied. Paulina was subject to several violations of her human rights while pregnant, including the leaking of her condition to anti-abortion forces in the state who then invaded her hospital room with anti-choice propaganda. The local district attorney drove her to the office of a local priest who then also tried to convince her not to have an abortion. In the end, Paulina had a baby. In small part, Paulina’s story resulted in the legalization of abortion in Mexico City. We can now hope that other children who become pregnant will not suffer her fate.
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These cases tear at most people’s heart. These are unambiguous reasons for legal abortion for almost everyone – except the Roman Catholic church. For in each of these cases, local bishops have intervened to try and prevent the abortion, to seek criminal charges against health care workers and, when all else fails, to threaten to excommunicate those involved.
In the Brazilian case, Archbishop Jose Cardoso Sobrinho noted in an interview with the Brazilian press that the actions of the girl’s mother and her doctors meant excommunication. The church thought that the girl should continue the pregnancy and deliver the child by Cesarean section. No mention was made of excommunicating the stepfather who had raped the nine-year-old child.
The bishop was aware enough of the canons concerning excommunication not to claim that the girl was excommunicated. Canon law prohibits the excommunication of anyone under the age of majority. But, was the bishop correct in his opinion that the “adults” who were involved had “incurred excommunication?” Maybe not.
The assertion reminded me of an attempt by Mexican bishops to excommunicate the legislators in Mexico City who voted to legalize abortion. During an impromptu press conference on Shepherd One, the papal plane, which at the time was on its way to Brazil, Pope Benedict was asked if this was appropriate. “Yes,” he said “the excommunication was not arbitrary, it is part of canon law."
Within minues, the papal spokesperson walked back to the press and tempered the remarks. The next day, the transcript of the event excluded the Pope’s "yes."
While the lack of compassion Archbishop Sobrinho exhibited is without question, his canonical wisdom is in question. Excommunication of the sort he discussed is not imposed. Rather, it is considered self-admininistered by the person who has committed the act. And if the person believes the action they took was not sinful, but was the most moral alternative in a difficult situation, then no excommunication has occurred. For this mother and the girl’s doctors no decision could have been more moral.