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An Abortion in Brazil: The Case that Saved a Life and Divided the Vatican

The Catholic Church condemns any effective contraception, as this “makes the Church fruitful”, providing her with new children through Baptism. However, when this threatens the Church's credibility, Canon Law allows penalties to be relaxed, to avoid what the Vatican calls “scandal” (aka “public relations disaster”). Thus the case of the raped nine-year-old who was carrying twins caused divisions in the Vatican, and Pope Benedict finally had to enforce “fruitfulness”. The article below contains the references, which were omitted from the published version.

An Abortion in Brazil: The Case that Saved a Life and Divided the Vatican

Muriel Fraser
Conscience Magazine, vol. XXXV, no, 1, 2014, pp. 42-43.

On his first foreign visit this summer 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 hierarchy had squared off with medical professionals over the fate of just one young Catholic, a 9-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 north-eastern Brazil. The nine-year-old complained of abdominal pain, headaches, nausea and dizziness.[1] Raped by her stepfather over a period of years, she was four months pregnant and carrying twins. According to several doctors, the thin child was not capable of continuing the pregnancy and her life was in danger. Dr. Nadegi Queiroz, gynaecologist in the Pernambuco state legislature, was one of several doctors who said that her uterus as too small to contain one growing fetus, let alone two, meaning her life was in danger from the pregnancy.[2]

Dr. Sérgio Cabral, a senior doctor at the maternity hospital linked to the University of Pernambuco in Recife (CISAM), agreed.[3] He said that the child was in danger of suffering a ruptured uterus, catastrophic haemorrhage and miscarriages, with the added risks of diabetes, hypertension, seizures due to eclampsia and lifelong sterility.[4] There was no hope for the fetuses, since four months is well below viability.

Medical treatment dictated by the Archbishop

 Under Brazilian law the patient was entitled to an 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.[5] 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.”[6]

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, Archbishop put pressure on the administration of the government maternity hospital in Recife (IMIP) where she had been admitted.[7] 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.[8]

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”.[9] Confronted with five religious figures, the father agreed to oppose the abortion.[10]

That same day Cardoso announced that his lawyer was about to file a complaint with the Public Prosecutor.[11] He also approached the State Governor, claiming that the treatment would result in a double murder.[12] When the child was first admitted, the Recife hospital had said that only the mother’s permission was needed.[13] 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.[14] 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, spokesman of women’s rights group Grupo Curimim, 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”.[15]

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, she checked the child out of the maternity hospital on Tuesday evening and brought her to the university clinic. This hospital, the Integrated Health Centre Amaury de Medeiros (CISAM), 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.[16] 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.[17]

The archbishop's annoncement 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!”[18] Many prominent Brazilians, like the Catholic theologian João Batistiole, also spoke out against the censure.[19] Government officials, too, expressed their disbelief. Health Minister, José Gomes Temporão, said, “The Church can have an opinion, but health works in defence of life”. His colleague, Minister of the Environment Carlos Minc, added, “This is mediaeval”.[20] And President Lula da Silva himself criticized Archbishop Cardoso and praised the doctors for saving the little girl’s life.[21]

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.[22] 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.”[23] 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 (Can. 1323, §4 and §5)..

The Vatican’s initial reaction on Saturday did not back the CNBB. Instead, Cardinal Giovanni Batista Re, Prefect of the Congregation of Bishops focussed in the public outcry over the CNBB's initial statement, saying that “the attack on the Brazilian church is unjustified”.[24] But on March 15, ten 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 mother, made the Church appear “bereft of mercy” and that this “has affected the credibility of our teaching.”[25] 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 that “We cannot allow ... enemies from within to create a breach in the Church’s doctrine on abortion”.[26]

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.[27]

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.[28]

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”.[29] 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[30] — in other words, about exactly those topics that he had told La Civiltà Cattolica the day before tht he wished the church to be less “obsessed” about.[31]

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.”[32]

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.


1. “Menina de nove anos está grávida de gêmeos do padrasto de 23 anos já preso no interior de Pernambuco”
Wikinotícias, 2009-03-02
2. “Doutora Nadegi (PHS)”
“Cisam realiza aborto em vítima de estupro”
Diário Oficial de Pernambuco, 2009-03-05
3. “Centro Integrado de Saúde Amaury de Medeiros (CISAM)”
“Menina de 9 anos estuprada por padrasto é submetida a aborto em Recife”
Globo, 2009-03-04
4. “Equipe médica excomungada diz que não está arrependida”
Estadão, 2009-03-06,equipe-medica-excomungada-diz-que-nao-esta-arrependida,334543,0.htm
5. “Advogado de Igreja vai denunciar mãe de menina grávida ao MP”
6. Church hits out after nine-year-old's abortion
AFP, 2009-03-06
7. Cisam realiza aborto em vítima de estupro
Diário Oficial de Pernambuco, 2009-03-05
8. “Instituto de Medicina Integral Professor Fernando Figueira (IMIP)”
“Menina de nove anos está grávida de gêmeos do padrasto de 23 anos já preso no interior de Pernambuco”
Wikinotícias, 2009-03-02
9. Padre Edson Rodrigues (“Father Edson Rodrigues & the Resurrection Band”)
10. “Igreja quer impedir interrupção de gravidez de menina de 9 anos em PE”
Globo, 2009-03-04
11. “Igreja quer impedir interrupção de gravidez de menina de 9 anos em PE”
Globo, 2009-03-04
12. “Cisam realiza aborto em vítima de estupro”
Diário Oficial de Pernambuco, 2009-03-05
13. “Preso no Recife homem que engravidou enteada de 9 anos”
Reuters, 2009-02-28
14. “Advogado de Igreja vai denunciar mãe de menina grávida ao MP”
15. “Menina de 9 anos estuprada por padrasto é submetida a aborto em Recife”
Globo, 2009-03-04
16. “Advogado de Igreja vai denunciar mãe de menina grávida ao MP [Ministério Público]”
17. Archbishop Announces Excommunication of Doctor and Family Members for Abortion on Nine-Year-Old Girl
Life Site News, 2009-03-06
18. “Equipe médica excomungada diz que não está arrependida”
Estadão, 2009-03-06,equipe-medica-excomungada-diz-que-nao-esta-arrependida,334543,0.htm
19. “Arcebispo excomunga médicos e parentes de menina que fez aborto”
20. “Ministros da Saúde e Meio Ambiente criticam arcebispo por excomungar médicos que realizaram aborto na menina de nove anos”
Wikinotícias, 2009-03-05
21. “Brazilian president slams excommunications over minor’s abortion”
Indo-Asian News Service, 2009-03-07
22. Bishops admit excommunication in abortion row was wrong
AFP, 2009-03-05
23. Vatican official pans excommunication in Brazil abortion row
Agence France Press, 2009-03-16
24. Vatican Backs Bishop Who Excommunicated Doctor and Family Involved in Abortion
Life Site News, 2009-03-09
25. “Translation of Archbishop [Salvatore] Fisichella’s Intervention on the Brazilian Excommunications”, [“On the Side of the Brazilian Girl”]
Kevin F. Keiser, 2009-03-20
Another translation:
Appendix: “On the side of the little Brazilian girl”
“Complete Article on ‘The Recife Affair’ by Political Philosophy Professor Monseigneur Michel Schooya”
“Mons. Fisichella sulla vicenda della bambina brasiliana violentata”
Zenit, 2009-03-15
26. “Memorandum de Michel Schooyans a la Curia Romana sobre Mons. Fisichella“
27. Pope Pius XII, “Allocution to midwives”, 1951-10-29
28. “El caso de Recife. Roma ha hablado, pero la causa no ha terminado”
Sandro Magister
Chiesa, 2009-07-03
29. A Student’s Guide to Bioethics, p. 16
Jérôme Lejeune Foundation, 2013
30. “Francis’ Address to Group of Catholic Gynecologists”
Zenit, 2013-09-20
31. “A Big Heart Open to God: The exclusive interview with Pope Francis”
America Magazine, 2013-09-19
32. Nigerian Bishop: 'If Nigeria Falls to Islamic Extremists, All of Africa Will Be at Risk'
Zenit, 2014-01-14

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