in Catholic Circles

Brazilian Judges Rule in Favor of Abortion: A New Version of Roe v. Wade?

“Women bear alone the burden of pregnancy. Therefore, there will only exist gender equality if women have the right to decide whether to continue a pregnancy or not.” So spoke Roberto Barroso, lead justice on Brazil’s Federal Supreme Court when ruling that abortion is no longer a crime when performed in the first trimester. The ruling stems from a 2013 case in Brazil involving clandestine abortion procedures in which five individuals were charged.

While the judges dropped all charges in the case and indicated that they favor decriminalization of abortion, the ruling does not make abortion legal across the board—the current circumstances under which it is legally permissible continue to be confined to rape, endangerment of the woman’s life or a brain-dead fetus.

Lady justice in front of Brazil's Federal Supreme Court, where judges recently dropped all criminal charges against five individuals who were part of a 2013 case involving clandestine abortions. © Getty Images

Lady justice in front of Brazil’s Federal Supreme Court, where judges recently dropped all criminal charges against five individuals who were part of a 2013 case involving clandestine abortions. © Getty Images

Despite its current limitations, the ruling represents a step forward, specifically taken in the context of the justices’ opinions. All were unanimous in their observation that fear of imprisonment— women face up to three years if convicted, with doctors facing up to four years—failed to produce any significant reduction in abortion rates. Justice Barroso went on to assert that criminalization of abortion is “incompatible with the empowerment of women, their physical and mental integrity and their sexual and reproductive rights.”

Opposition towards the justices’ ruling is, however, not inconsequential. Brazil’s president, Michael Temer, is a staunch “antichoice advocate. Coupled with his stance is the substantial opposition by the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil (NCBB) towards any efforts to decriminalize abortion. In a country that the Pew Research Center asserts to have the largest Catholic population on Earth, the bishops present a perinnial obstacle to full decriminalization. No sooner had the justices made their ruling public then the president of the NCBB, Cardinal Sergio da Rocha, condemned the court’s decision.

The court was set to hear another potentially landmark abortion case on December 7, 2016, that dealt with abortion and Zika pregnancies. That hearing, however, has been postponed indefinitely. Of majority Catholic countries, Brazil has the highest instances of abortion, most of which are clandestine. According to the World Health Organization, 800,000 extralegal abortions are administered annually.

Dominican Republic Abortion Ban Protest

In Opposition to the Dominican Republic’s altering of the criminal code with regard to abortion, protests were held December 8. Alterations of the code, which harkens back to the criminal code of 1884, criminalize virtually all instances of abortion, including pregnancies caused by rape and incest, and terminations in instances when the fetus possesses a serious medical condition. The Center for Reproductive Rights estimates that more than 90,000 unsafe abortions occur annually as result of the Dominican Republic’s stringent abortion laws.

Such changes to the criminal code stand in stark contrast to amendments made to it in 2015. Those alterations would have allowed for abortion in the now-criminalized circumstances, as well as in the instance of the woman’s life being endangered. The 2015 changes were set to go into effect on December 27, 2016, though they were blocked by the Dominican courts before they could make their way into law. Allegations have been made that substantial lobbying from religious conservatives aided in pressuring the courts into blocking the measures, which essentially reverts the legal status of abortion to that of the criminal code of 1884. The court’s ruling was followed by the Senate’s December 12 vote to continue penalizing abortions, with those convicted of providing the service facing incarceration from two to 10 years.

A slight reversal in legislative momentum occurred on February 8, when a Senate commission favored newly agreed upon observations and recommendations put forth by President Danilo Medina in response to earlier protests. President Danilo’s observations suggest that the wording of the new code states that “with the exception of the extenuating circumstances [rape, incest, fetal inviability, danger to a woman’s life] set out in article 110, anyone who through food, potions, medicines, treatments or any other method, cause the interruption of a woman’s pregnancy or cooperates with this purpose, even when she considers it, will be penalized with two or three years in prison.”

As the commission was meeting to deliberate on the president’s suggestions, Bishop Victor Masalles of the Bani Diocese addressed them, urging that they discard Medina’s inclusion of extenuating circumstances.

The Vatican Reaffirms Ban on Gay Priests

December witnessed the Vatican issuing a document reaffirming that gay men may not serve as priests. Entitled, ‘The Gift of the Priestly Vocation,’ the document quotes from its 2005 pronouncement declaring that men who “practice homosexuality, present deepseated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called gay culture” must be excluded from priesthood. However, according to the Washington Post, some experts believe that the lack of a definition for the term “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” may leave room for interpretation.

Vatican Creates Forum to Discuss Women as Deacons

The Vatican has Allowed for the creation of the Women’s Diaconate, to be led by Jesuit Archbishop Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer of Spain, the secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The diaconate will be composed of a 12-member commission, six women and six men, and its chief task will be reviewing the possibility of creating female deacons within the church.

The commission will not only review the existing duties of male deacons— preaching, baptism and the witnessing of weddings—it will also attempt to determine the role of female deacons in the early church versus the role of male deacons. The hope is to determine what the role of female deacons in the modern church would be, and how that role would comport with the church’s sacramental character.

The commission was put into place by Pope Francis in the wake of a May 26 meeting with the world’s congregations of Catholic women during the triennial meeting of the International Union of Superiors General.

Addressing the purpose and formation of the group, commission member and senior research associate in residence at Hofstra University Phyllis Zagano stated that the “definitive teaching of the church” that female priests will not be ordained should “allay any fears” that the Women’s Diaconate would serve as a springboard to the priesthood.

Cologne Priests Call for Women’s Ordination and Voluntary Celibacy

Eleven priests from the Archdiocese of Cologne published an open letter on January 10 calling for women to be admitted to the priesthood. “It makes no sense continuously to ask the Holy Spirit for vocations while at the same time excluding women from the priestly ministry,” the priests wrote.

The letter marked the 50th anniversary of the priests’ ordination, The Economist reports, and offered a reflection on their many years of service. It also called for an end to mandatory celibacy. “What moves us is the experience of loneliness: As elderly people who are unmarried because our office required this from us, we feel it vividly on some days after 50 years on the job…. We accepted celibacy but did not choose it.”

According to National Catholic Reporter, the priests noted that celibacy can cause unnecessary suffering, “often lead[ing] either to fruitless loneliness and social isolation or helpless work agitation.”

Family Planning in the Philippines

The close of January saw the president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, sign an executive order that would provide six million women of the island nation free reproductive services and contraception through the government. The executive order was enacted as a means to place into immediate action a pre-existing law that codified the same policies as the president’s order. The subject of numerous debates and votes extending over the space of 13 years, this law was finally accepted as a part of the Philippine’s legal code in 2012.

During the nearly decade and a half that the bill struggled to be put into law, its staunchest opposition issued from the church hierarchy, as well as lawmakers and anticontraception groups allied with the Vatican’s policies—the combined force of which filed several petitions with the country’s Supreme Court to block specific portions of the law over the years. President Duterte’s order sought, in part, to remove the obstructions placed on the law by the petitions and rulings, namely the prohibition of procurement, distribution and sale of birth control implants on the part of the nation’s Health Department.

While the president has framed the executive order as an antipoverty measure, many see it as another round in an ongoing battle between the Catholic bishops and Duterte. In a country where close to 80 percent of the population identifies as Catholic, Duterte has accused the clergy of keeping mistresses, pedophilia, corruption and graft; has generally referred to the church as “the most hypocritical institution”; and has specifically referred to Pope Francis as a son of a whore.

Despite this, surveys carried out by Pulse Asia indicate that Duterte’s stance on reproductive health is viewed favorably by the populace, with 86 percent of citizens in favor of government-backed reproductive healthcare services.