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BRAZIL: Time to Break the Silence on Abortion

When her father was excommunicated from the Catholic Church for performing a potentially life-saving abortion on a 9-year-old girl, Thais Moraes recognized the need to open up discussion on abortion in Brazil.

"The archbishop affirmed that rape was a dreadful sin. But abortion, he said, was even worse."

A poster in Porto Alegre, Brazil declares "Abortion: public, safe, legal and the right of all women." Photo credit: Gabby DC.

It was noon on a regular weekday; a Wednesday in March 2009. After coming home from university, I was having lunch with my brothers and watching the local news on TV. I was not paying much attention to the voice of the commentator until I was struck by a familiar name: Olimpio Moraes Filho—my father.

It took a while for my brothers and I to understand what was going on. My father—a doctor—and his medical team were being publicly excommunicated by the archbishop of our city, Jose Cardoso Sobrinho, for performing an abortion.

But this was not a common case of abortion. A 9-year-old girl from the interior of my state, Pernambuco, had become pregnant with twins after being sexually abused by her stepfather. Carrying on with the pregnancy represented an enormous risk of death to the girl, who was not yet prepared for such transformations in her young body.

Brazilian law considers abortion a crime, but there are exceptional cases in which it is legal for a doctor to perform an abortion. Abortion is legal here if there is no other way to save the pregnant woman’s life or if the pregnancy is the result of rape. Both of these circumstances were present in the 9-year-old girl’s case. Therefore, my father and his medical team were not doing anything illegal.

The archbishop argued, however, that the law of God is superior to the law of men, and that performing an abortion mandated excommunication from the Catholic Church. When asked about the girl’s stepfather who had raped her, the archbishop affirmed that rape was a dreadful sin. But abortion, he said, was even worse.

This led to an astonishing amount of attention from the media and generated wide public debate, not only in my state and in my country, but also internationally. The story was published in the New York Times and led to an apology by the Vatican itself. Reporters from all over the world came to visit our house to get more information about the story.

Brazilians started asking how the archbishop could claim to protect life while presenting a degree of tolerance for the rape of an innocent child. They started questioning the archbishop for condemning doctors who were acting with the support of the law and trying to save the child’s life. The case raised all sorts of questions about theology, morality, the role of religion in politics and law, gender-based violence, criminality in Brazil, among other crucial issues. But first and foremost, the 9-year-old girl’s case finally made people—young and old, progressive and conservative, religious and atheist, male and female—discuss abortion.

A Matter of Social Justice

Taking a position on abortion means dealing with very delicate and often intimate experiences and beliefs. Science currently does not offer a definitive answer to the question of when life begins. We often turn to religion to regulate our conduct, both morally and legally, and to understand complex issues like abortion. This is especially true in my country.

Brazil has legally been a secular state since 1890. This means the state and the Catholic Church have been officially separated for 120 years. In practice, the Catholic religion continues to shape public opinion. According to the national census from 2000, nearly 74% of the country’s population is Catholic. By the latter half of the 20th century, Brazil ranked as the largest Catholic country in the world. This strong influence has been considered harmful by many women’s rights organizations, whose work goes against the Catholic Church’s position on abortion and the use of contraceptives.

Brazil’s women’s rights movement argues that criminalization is ineffective at discouraging women with unwanted pregnancies from having an abortion. “What in fact happens is that the abortion is performed anyways,” says Benita Spinelli, the coordinator of the women’s health sector in my city, Recife. “The difference is that wealthy women can afford a safe abortion in clean clinics—legally or not—whereas poor women, who are the majority of the female population in Brazil, have to perform abortions in places with no adequate medical care, resulting in serious damage to their health.” Research led by the NGO Ipas Brasil, in 2007, in partnership with the Institute of Social Medicine of the University of the State of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ), showed that over a million abortions are performed in Brazil each year. Unsafe abortion is among the top three causes of maternal death in my country. . . .


Sheena1's picture

Hi Thais, I really loved your

Hi Thais,
I really loved your piece. Your passion for the issue really shows.

Thanks for sharing!

Nezed's picture

A 9yr old child? When will

A 9yr old child? When will this injustice against women and the girl child ever end? When?

I do not aim for Perfection; Just excellence!

Okeny-Lucia's picture

You are a great Man

I have stumbled on a nery important information that I would like to introduce in my community health education for reproductive health rights.It has been hard I can say trying to break the thoughts.
Thank you for that Thais

Lucia Buyanza
Reproductive Health

Valéria Barbosa da Silva's picture

Right to be children

Dear midwife.

Abortion is a controversial issue in our country because of the religious influences as well as you said.

Life is the most important gift in the world and especially a child, and that children as young as 9 years suddenly because of a religious culture comes to life at risk, I'm thinking:

Christ was only love, love is not abuse, does not violate, the other does not take away the right to choose life.

This child had no choice and was submitted to the power of an abuser and with the endorsement of religious power.

The doctor is trained to save lives the religious spirit, but what is the appropriate body without a spirit to nourish the fruit of a rape, wanted terrorists in the days of a young man?

God never excommunicate the right to be a girl child, and as a child he would not support that it had to put their physical and emotional health in a shallow grave.

As for his father and the team, the act ensured the law and medicine softened the future already marked this child giving you the chance to stay alive without the responsibility of bearing children without maturity and desire to have them.

Right to be children; Congratulations matter.


RareTexan's picture

The man accused of the rape

What happened to the man the was accused of raping this 9 year old girl?

RareTexan's picture

Abortion is about Life.

Quoting the writer:

"One can be against the legalization of abortion in order to protect life and one can also be in favor of the legalization of abortion for the exact same reason. The difference, in many cases, lies in whose life you are considering the most important. And to consider some lives more important than others is undoubtedly problematic."

...undoubtedly problematic.

Protecting life is the bottom line. I consider the innocent life as the one with the greater protection. The unseen but felt innocent child has the greater right. I only believe abortion is moral when it is to save the mother’s life. Otherwise you are taking the life of the innocent child.

Sex is a powerful thing. But we must learn to engage with full responsibility of the consequences. This is where marriage is important. Marriage is a place of bonding and commitments of important responsibilities are made to each other. A disciplined man and woman will wait until marriage to engage in physical love. Selfish people engage in sex before marriage. Then to just kill and discard their mistake is an act of murder and should be punished accordingly. In this day and time we have DNA testing and both mother and father should be prosecuted. Life is very important and especially the innocent. We all make mistakes and act foolish, but a responsible person learns from those mistakes.

In the case of this 9 year old girl, she should have been closely watched up until it was just absolutely assured she would have died. Then the baby should be taken to save her life. Who knows, her body may have developed rapidly. If the child was taken then the stepfather should have not only been accused of rape but murder also.

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