I’m Catholic. I’ve gone to Catholic school all my life—from grade school to high school. My university back at home prides itself on being the oldest Catholic and Jesuit university in the nation. I may not go to church every weekend, but the golden rule is my mission statement, and Jesus is my homeboy.
Yet when I heard of Brazilian archbishop Cardoso Sobrinho’s decision to excommunicate the Brazilian mother who recently sought an abortion for her 9 year old daughter who had been raped, I was shocked and appalled. The young girl—along with her 14-year-old sister—had been sexually assaulted by her stepfather on multiple occasions. However, although it was her stepfather who was responsible for these heinous crimes, he was not the one who officially denied participation in Church sacraments and services. The Church chose to excommunicate the child’s family and the doctors who performed the abortion. The reason given for this decision?
Marcio Miranda, the lawyer of the archdiocese of Recife and Olinda, of which Sobrinho is the archbishop, summed up the answer to this question in a few words: “It is the law of God: Do not kill. We consider this murder.”
“The law of God is above any human law,” affirmed Archbishop Sobrinho. He contended that while rape was bad, abortion was worse.
Abortion is a sticky issue. There are people at the far end of the spectrum who believe that abortion is wrong, regardless of the circumstances, and there are people who remain at the other extreme and see abortion not as an immoral act, but as a consequence of a decision made by the woman—as a choice.
Then there are people like me, who straddle both camps. I believe that the fetus within a woman’s womb is indeed life, and thus to be treated as such—given the same rights and so forth. Yet, I have a problem with condemning a woman who has an abortion after being raped; or, with criticizing a woman who deliberately terminates her fetus because her very life would be in danger if she were to carry the child to term.
The young girl in Brazil, sadly, falls under both of these categories. Only 9 years old, she had been repeatedly sexually abused by her step-father to the point of becoming impregnated with twins. This poor girl weighed no more than 35 kilograms (79 pounds) and was no more than 1.2 meters tall (4 feet). According to the newspaper the New York Times, doctors stated that her uterus was “too small to support one baby, let alone two.”
Despite the harsh reality of her situation, the Archbishop Sobrinho remained implacably staunch. Abortion was murder and a sin. The girl should have carried the children to term and then given birth to the babies via a Cesarean section.
In a telephone interview with TIME magazine, Archbishop Sobrinho contended that, “They took the life of an innocent.” In my opinion, the same could be said of the girl’s step-father. He stole her innocence, and, in essence, her childhood. Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva acknowledged that she would probably “need decades of psychological care to get her life back to normal.”
Yet, this cruel act which the girl’s step-father committed is virtually ignored, like a footnote in the greater text of the archbishop’s decision. The judgment reflects that it doesn’t matter how the girl got pregnant, who did it, and how this act would affect the girl’s life. The judgment calls made by bishops and cardinals were focused on what she should do, what she must do. No effort was made to empathize with her. She was implied a murderer and her family was rejected from the Church. It gives me chills how mathematical this decision is, how it was made.
I refuse to believe that what she did was a sin. And there are many that agree with me. Many Catholic Brazilians were shocked at the archbishop’s callous actions. Beatriz Galli, the policy associate for the NGO Ipas Brasil, told TIME magazine, “In this case, most people support the doctors and the family. Everything they did was legal and correct…The Church takes these positions that are so rigid that it ends up weakened.”
Even Archbishop Rino Fisichella, President of the Ponifica Academy for Like, wrote in an article on the front page of L’Osservatore Romano that, “Before thinking about excommunication, it was necessary and urgent to save her innocent life and bring her back to a level of humanity of which we men of the church should be expert and masters in proclaiming…Others deserve excommunication and our forgiveness; not those who enabled [her] to live.”
Moreover, excommunicating the families of victims of sexual assault and banning abortion is not going to prevent the crime of rape from happening. If truth be told, the mere fact that sexual offenders can commit their despicable misdemeanors while at the same time not risk excommunication from the Church does not give any incentive to these sexual offenders to stop.
Brazil may have the biggest Catholic population in the world, but it also has a burgeoning problem of child and teenage sexual abuse. According to the New York Times, the Brazilian Ministry of Health reported that the number of legal abortions of girls ages 10 to 14 was 22 in 2007. This number jumped up to 49 in 2008. However, the Ministry estimates at least one million more illegal abortions occur in the country every year, and the percentage of minors who receive illegal abortions is unknown.
Dr. Jefferson Drezett, a gynecologist and coordinator of sexual abuse victims service at the Pérola Byington Hospital in Brail told the New York Times, “A part of Brazilian society still doesn’t want to stop treating women like they are property…This has to change.”
I believe that the Church’s stance towards women contributes greatly to this problem as well. The Church’s resolution to support Archbishop Sobrinho’s pronouncement reflects its decision to treat this 9-year-old girl as if she were strictly a vessel for unborn life. The archbishop “solution” of a Cesarean section was heartless. Her small frame was neither mature nor sturdy enough to carry twin babies for nine months, much less undergo such an operation. In addition, no thought was even taken into account for her emotional and psychological wellbeing during this pregnancy.
I believe that there is a problem with objectifying her in this way, and that it is time that the country with the strongest Catholic presence had an open dialogue with the Catholic Church. It is time to expose the realities of what is going on in Brazil. Illegal abortion is a reality, rape exists, and out-of-wedlock sex is just as real. Ignoring these truths or condemning and ostracizing women will not make society a better place. According to Dr. Drezett, 1of 7 Brazilian women aged 15 to 19 is a mother, while 1 in 3 pregnancies is unwanted.
These numbers may shock the Church, but for Brazilian women—especially those living in poorer conditions, this is the real world. A world which strictly defines her sexuality while at the same time providing her with limited education opportunities for her to possess a sustainable job, minimal social help from the government to support her if she does have to raise a child by herself out of wedlock, and little recourse to justice against sexual assailants.
When President da Silva made an attempt at a national debate on abortion in 2008, the Church was quick to suppress these talks. Moreover, it is no coincidence that the majority of the members of Congress are antiabortion, and hence Brazil has one of the toughest abortion policies in Latin America. But the Church must realize that it is highly dangerous to deny the truth of what happens every day. If the situation of women remains the same, not only the women of today but also their daughters and future generations after them will have to deal with a society that first deprives women, then punishes them. Legalization of abortion is not the solution to rape, but prohibition of it most certainly isn’t either.
The issue of abortion aside, one nine-year-old girl might have just succeeded in escaping the grasp of her abusive step-father. But what about the others? Shouldn’t this be the subject of national debate?
Dominga Julicia JAMES