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.
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. . . .