By Jaylan Boyle, Senior Reporter

RIO DE JANEIRO – The abortion issue polarises opinion throughout much of the world, and has led to heated and sometimes violent confrontation between concerned parties. America is currently captivated by the impending trial of Scott Raeder, the ‘pro-lifer’ who allegedly shot dead doctor George Tiller in Wichita, Kansas, at the height of a protest in 1993.

Brazilian Health Minister Jose Gomez Temporao (at microphone), photo by Elza Fiuza/ABr.
Brazilian Health Minister Jose Gomez Temporao (at microphone), photo by Elza Fiuza/ABr.

In Brazil, the country with more Catholics than any other in the world, status quo has largely gone unchallenged until recently: Abortion is illegal in this country, except in cases where the life of the mother is in danger.

Recently the Brazilian Health Ministry amended the applicable laws to the effect that only a police report of rape is required for a procedure to be authorized. The Catholic church has reacted strongly against the amendment, as expected.

In recent years a number of cases have brought the abortion issue to the fore in a country that has always aligned itself closely with church doctrine, on the street if not officially. Most notably, the abortion performed in Recife in March last year on a nine-year-old girl, who is suspected to have been raped and impregnated with twins by her stepfather, has perhaps forced many Brazilians to examine the issue from a new angle.

When the case came to light, the Vatican reaction outraged many around the world. Archbishop of Olinda and Recife Jose Cardoso Sobrinho issued what was interpreted by some as a ‘if you’re not for us, you’re against us’ statement, calling the decision to abort ‘against the law of god’, adding “The law of god is above any human law”.

A demonstration against abortion, in front of the House floor, photo by José Cruz/ABr.
A demonstration against abortion, in front of the House floor, photo by José Cruz/ABr.

The church then successfully moved to excommunicate those involved, including the girl herself, her family, and the doctors concerned, inducing the Brazilian government to comment. Said Health Minister Jose Gomes Temporao: “I believe the position of the church is extreme, radical and inadequate… I am shocked by the radical position of this religion which, wrongly saying it is defending a life, puts another life in danger that is as important as any other.”

President Luis Inacio da Silva was quoted as saying “As a Christian and a Catholic, I deeply regret that a bishop of the Catholic Church has such a conservative attitude.. In this case, the medical profession was more right than the Church.”

At the crux of the issue, condemnation of the church has centered around unwillingness to compromise, even in view of the fact that the girl’s life was indeed confirmed to be in danger. One of the doctors involved, Olimpio Moraes, said that the girl’s circumstances entirely agreed with Brazilian law. “As doctors, we could not allow a girl of 9 to suffer like this or until she paid with her own life,” he said.

The heightened danger is due to the fact that the girl’s hips are immature, and would complicate birth. Tensions were further inflamed when Bishop Sobrinho said further that the girl’s stepfather would not be excommunicated because abortion was a more severe sin than rape.

When, later in March 2009, the Vatican publicly backtracked on the case, many saw it as a move toward greater tolerance in the church. “Before thinking about an excommunication it was necessary and urgent to save an innocent life”, said Archbishop Rino Fisichella. Even the excommunications of the doctors involved were reversed, as according to the Vatican, only those doctors ‘systematically’ performing abortions should be subject.

National Movement in Defense of Life - Brazil Without Abortion, photo by José Cruz/ABr.
National Movement in Defense of Life - Brazil Without Abortion, photo by José Cruz/ABr.

While some Brazilians are beginning to challenge the church on the issue of abortion, a recent survey found that more than 65 percent of the population are of the opinion that the country’s current law should not be modified, with only 16 percent saying the law should be relaxed, the rest having no opinion.

The illegality of abortion in Brazil has created a lucrative black market for the procedure itself and drugs used to induce abortion. It is estimated that 5,000 women die per year in Brazil from complications related to unauthorized procedures, with 800,000 hospitalized.

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  1. I’d like to make a couple corrections to the reporter:

    1. The girl was not excommunicated, as she could not be. Per canon law, only those over 16 are subject to canonical penalties.

    2. The bishop excommunicated no one. The specific provision on Canon Law says that the excommunication in these cases is AUTOMATIC (self-inflicted). It needs no declared penalty, no trial.

  2. Thanks very much for clarifying this for us Rafael, we appreciate any input from those with knowledge in a particular field. We will review and amend this article as appropriate.

    Jaylan Boyle


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