Only Fetuses and Popes are Worthy

The Roman Catholic church often acts in ways that decent compassionate people find incomprehensible. It hides priests who sexually assault children and agonizes over whether or not it can punish them by stripping them of their priesthood. In fact, it rarely goes so far as to “defrock” them. One could not help but compare this reality to the situation this past week of the Brazilian mother of a nine-year-old girl who was 15 weeks pregnant with twins as a result of a well-founded allegation of rape by her stepfather. Doctors in Brazil decided that the pregnancy met both grounds for abortion in Brazil: rape and risk to the life of the pregnant woman, in this case a child. The nine-year-old weighs about 80 pounds and is not fully developed. Carrying twins to term and delivering them is medically very risky.

The Catholic church first hired lawyers to try to prevent the abortion. When that failed and the abortion was performed, the local bishop Jose Cardoso Sobrinho announced that the mother and the doctors had “incurred excommunication.” The child, he said, should have carried the pregnancy to term and delivered by a Cesarean section yet no mention was made of what penalty, if any, the stepfather would incur. He has been arrested attempting to flee town and is also suspected of abusing the nine-year-old’s physically handicapped sister.

The Vatican entered the fray this weekend. In an interview in La Stampa, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re who heads the Vatican Commission on Latin America claimed that attacks on the church were ”unfair.” The “twins” had a right to and the excommunication was the right thing to do.

Are these prelates crazy?

It would seem that their obsession with abortion as the single most important moral issue of our time has made it impossible for them to recognize that ethics, or moral theology as it would be called in the Catholic tradition, involves the weighing of facts and circumstances. Does Cardinal Re, whose remit is Latin America, not know that the sexual abuse of young girls by male relatives is a persistent and serious problem?

Researchers in Latin America acknowledge that accurate statistics are not available given that many if not most cases of incest are never reported. However, Rio de Janeiro’s police chief Marta Rocha who has been working to sensitize the Brazilian police force to the problem noted that “The most surprising thing is discovering just how generalized incest is in all sectors of Brazilian society. “The church has been at the center of efforts to prevent girls who have become pregnant as a result of incest or at the hands of family friends in Nicaragua and Mexico from getting abortions. In Mexico, church leaders were called in by a local district attorney to convince “Paulina,” a young girl who was pregnant as a result of rape not to have an abortion. Paulina became a mother in April 2000 at the age of 14. In Mexico, seven out of ten cases of sexual assault are committed by people known to the victim.

In Nicaragua, Rosa, also nine, was pregnant as a result of child sexual abuse. In 2003, she received a therapeutic abortion over the protests of the church. Archbishop Obando y Bravo announced that the mother and the doctors had excommunicated themselves. The Nicaraguan bishops issued an open letter comparing abortion to terrorist bombings and worked to close the legal “loop hole” which permitted abortion in cases of rape. Abortion is now completely illegal. No more Rosas will be saved. In a study by the Preventive Medicine and Public Health Department of the Nicaraguan Autonomous University of Leon, approximately 20% of the respondents, male and female said they had been victims of some form of forced sexual act at some point in their lives; 35% of them before the age of 12.

Femicide is a global problem and Latin America one of the hot spots. Between 1987 and 1997 192 women were murdered in Ciudad Juarez and another 138 in Tijuana, Mexico. With support from the Ford Foundation, a leader in women’s rights funding, a regional network of women’s groups has formed to address the problem which continues unabated with little action by the police and silence from the church.

No threats of excommunication are made to dissuade men from murdering women or to send a moral message. In the 1983 Revised Code of Canon Law, only two groups are protected. A Catholic may incur automatic excommunication if he or she attempts to assassinate the Pope (you don’t even need to succeed, just trying is enough) or if one successfully procures an abortion. Only fetuses and popes are worthy of consideration. The rest of us are on our own.

Perhaps most cruel in the Brazilian case is the fact that, all likelihood, neither the doctors nor the mother have actually “incurred excommunication” and the bishop and the cardinal know it. They make what amounts to a speculation to frighten and punish the innocent in pursuit of a political objective. They are claiming that these people have by their acts excommunicated themselves. What they neglect to add is that if this mother was under any stress or trauma, the penalty does not apply. If the doctors likewise were convinced that the pregnancy was a danger to the child’s life they too were under duress and the penalty does not apply. Finally if these people genuinely believed that they were doing the most moral thing possible in a very difficult situation; no penalty applies.

Can you imagine that a mother or a doctor confronted with a nine-year-old who has been raped would not believe that the most decent and moral thing one can do is terminate the pregnancy? Can you imagine a pastor not standing with that family, that child and those doctors assuring them that they are making the right decision and offering compassion and comfort?