An Abortion in Brazil
The Case That Saved a Life and Divided the Vatican
On his first foreign visit in the summer of 2013, the new Pope Francis was in Brazil to reach out to Catholic youth from around the globe for World Youth Day. Just four years earlier, however, the Catholic hierarchy had squared off with medical professionals over the fate of just one young Catholic, a 12-year-old Brazilian girl and her right to access an abortion. When a local archbishop excommunicated several people who helped the girl obtain an abortion, the Vatican, surprisingly, was divided. There was a call for mercy from the Brazilian hierarchy, seconded by a top cleric in Rome, competing with the usual condemnation of any and all parties associated with abortion. This break in ranks foreshadowed Francis’ own more pastoral vision of a merciful church—if not yet a change in the official teachings on abortion.
On February 25, 2009, a little girl was brought to a clinic in Pesqueira, a small city in the hills of northeastern Brazil. The nine-year-old complained of abdominal pain, headaches, nausea and dizziness. Raped by her stepfather over a period of years, now she was four months pregnant and carrying twins. Dr. Nadegi Queiroz, a gynecologist in the Pernambuco state legislature, was one of several doctors who said that the child’s uterus was too small to contain one growing fetus, let alone two, meaning her life was in danger from the pregnancy.
Dr. Sérgio Cabral, a senior doctor at the maternity hospital linked to the University of Pernambuco in Recife (CISAM), agreed. He said that the girl was in danger of suffering a ruptured uterus, catastrophic hemorrhage and miscarriage, with the added risks of diabetes, hypertension, seizures due to eclampsia and future sterility. There was no hope for the fetuses, since four months is well before viability.
Medical Treatment Dictate by the Archbishop
Under Brazilian law, the patient was entitled to abortion on two grounds: because her pregnancy was life-threatening, and also because it was the result of rape and was less than 20 weeks along. But when Archbishop José Cardoso Sobrinho of Olinda and Recife stepped in, he chose to ignore both the imminent risks to the girl’s safety and her rights under Brazilian law. “God’s law is above any human law,” he said. “So when a human law … is contrary to God’s law, this human law has no value.”
After the discovery of the little girl’s pregnancy she was interviewed by the police and two days later, on Friday evening, brought from Pesqueira to a hospital in the coastal city of Recife for an abortion. Aiming to stop the procedure, the archbishop put pressure on the administration of the government maternity hospital in Recife where she had been admitted. On Saturday, February 28, she had already begun the course of drugs, only to have the hospital announce on Sunday, without further explanation, that it was “postponing” the procedure.
This gave Archbishop Cardoso more time. He couldn’t get the rapist to assert his “paternal rights” and obstruct the abortion, as he was already in jail, so the archbishop turned his attention to the little girl’s parents. Her mother refused to even speak to him, but on Tuesday the child’s biological father was talked into attending a meeting with the archbishop, the diocesan lawyer, two priests from the diocesan council and his own parish priest, who leads a charismatic musical group known as the “Resurrection Band.” Confronted with five religious figures, the father agreed to oppose the abortion.
That same day, Cardoso announced that his lawyer was about to file a complaint with the public prosecutor. He also approached the state governor, claiming that the treatment would result in a double murder. When the child was first admitted, the Recife hospital had said that only the mother’s permission was needed. Yet on Tuesday, after legal threats by church officials, the hospital backed down. The administrators claimed that they must wait until the family could agree among themselves. That meant an indefinite postponement.
During this time, the archbishop talked much about the law of God, but didn’t mention the plight of the little girl. However, Paula Viana, spokesperson of women’s rights group Grupo Curumim, laid it on the line: “With each passing day, the risk is higher, the girl feels ill and already has other complications. There must be immediate medical intervention.”
Finally, the mother took matters into her own hands. Realizing that her daughter’s treatment was being directed not by the doctors, but by Archbishop José Cardoso Sobrinho, she checked the child out of the maternity hospital on Tuesday evening and brought her to the university clinic. This hospital wasted no time and performed the procedure on Wednesday morning, March 4.
“Thank God I’m Excommunicated!”
As soon as the news got out, the lawyer for the archdiocese announced that he would file a complaint of murder against the girl’s mother with the public prosecutor. The following day, March 5, Archbishop Cardoso announced the excommunication of everyone involved—the doctors for performing the abortion and the girl’s mother for allowing it—but not the stepfather who had raped her.
The archbishop’s announcement of excommunication for those involved with the abortion backfired badly. The director of the university clinic, Fatima Maia, even treated the public censure as a badge of honor: “Thank God I’m on the list of the excommunicated!” Many prominent Brazilians, like the Catholic theologian João Batistiole, also spoke out against the censure. Government officials, too, expressed their disbelief. Health Minister José Gomes Temporão said, “The church can have an opinion, but health works in defense of life.” His colleague, Minister of the Environment Carlos Minc, added, “This is medieval.” And President Lula da Silva himself criticized Archbishop Cardoso and praised the doctors for saving the little girl’s life.
Shaken by the public outcry, the Brazilian bishops issued a statement on March 12, affirming that the abortion should not have been allowed, but indicating that neither the mother nor the doctors deserved to be excommunicated under canon law. Dimas Lara Barbosa, secretary-general of the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil (CNBB), justified the change, saying “We must take the circumstances into consideration,” according to the Agence France-Presse news agency. This is not a novel interpretation of church law, as canon law does mention mitigating factors such as those who act under the influence of grave fear or out of a desire to defend another.
The Vatican’s initial reaction on Saturday did not back the CNBB. Instead, Cardinal Giovanni Batista Re, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, focused on the public outcry over the CNBB’s initial statement, saying that “the attack on the Brazilian church is unjustified.” But on March 15, 10 days after the excommunication was announced, Archbishop Salvatore Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, jumped in to try to contain the damage. He expressed the fear that the absolute ban on abortion, even to save the life of a woman, made the church appear “bereft of mercy” and that this “has affected the credibility of our teaching.” To counter this impression, he adopted the interpretation of canon law advanced by the Brazilian bishops and suggested that the mother and doctors were not subject to excommunication, in line with the CNBB follow-up statement.
Archbishop Fisichella’s attempt at damage control misfired. His reading of canon law was met by a chorus of outrage from key figures at the Vatican. These included the prominent theologian Archbishop Michel Schooyans, who said, “We cannot allow … enemies from within to create a breach in the Church’s doctrine on abortion.”
Others objected to Archbishop Fisichella’s statement by citing one of the popes who is currently proceeding towards sainthood, Pius XII. This pope explicitly forbade midwives to sacrifice the fetus, even in order to save the life of a woman.
On June 8, Benedict XVI discussed the case with his secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, and ordered that a statement be published reaffirming that the church’s teaching on abortion had not changed. Archbishop Fisichella was obliged to issue a clarification, which amounted to a retraction.
With the papacy of Pope Francis, many hope that Benedict’s interpretation of canon law will give way to a more nuanced approach. Initially, during the new pope’s visit to Brazil in July, a message was quietly inserted into World Youth Day booklets, saying, “Abortion is an attack on the very nature of woman, which is to be a mother.” On September 20, when Francis addressed a group of Catholic gynecologists, his whole talk on the “gospel of life” continued the party line against abortion and contraception—in other words, about exactly those topics that he had told La Civiltà Cattolica the day before that he wished the church to be less “obsessed” about.
Even so, many hope that Francis will take a more pastoral approach than his cloistered predecessor. His own experience of poverty has led him to see abortion as only one issue among many facing the church. This recently emboldened the Nigerian Bishop Hyacinth Egbebo to take a similarly pragmatic stand. “We are dying of lack of food,” he said, “Please keep in mind that we have more pressing problems here than what is bothering the West, and which you tend to dump on us—like same-sex marriage or abortion.”
Four years before the papacy of Francis, Archbishop Fisichella realized that punishing those who help an abused child does indeed make the church appear “bereft of mercy,” and that this is part of what “has affected the credibility of our teaching.” It remains to be seen whether Francis’ stated wish to de-emphasize abortion will mean that more women get access to reproductive healthcare without the hierarchy’s interference. The hopes pinned on Francis suggest that the Catholic faithful are longing for the Vatican to show more mercy.