When a 9-year-old girl in Brazil was recently found to be pregnant with twins, doctors performed an abortion. In Brazil, the procedure is legal only in cases of rape or to save the mother's life, and doctors determined that both applied to the girl — her stepfather was jailed on rape charges, and the 80-pound child was too physically immature to carry twins to term.
In response to this tragedy, a Brazilian archbishop pronounced the doctors and the girl's mother excommunicated from the Catholic Church, a decree met with incredulity around the world. Further fueling the outrage, the head of the Vatican's Congregation for Bishops added that the "real problem" was abortion, not the endangered life of the girl. Just days later, en route to AIDS-ravaged Africa, Pope Benedict XVI openly doubted the efficacy of condoms in halting HIV transmission. In both cases, it seemed that church policy trumped not only effective public health measures but compassion.
In Brazil, the church's actions suggested that the suffering of a young girl was of little concern compared with consistency on abortion. And ultimately, Rome acknowledged that the episode was badly handled. Writing in L'Osservatore Romano, Archbishop Rino Fisichella said the excommunications, which by church law are incurred automatically when abortion is procured or performed by adults, did not have to be blared to the world. Instead, the child "should have been defended, hugged and held tenderly to help her feel that we were all on her side."
And there are "sides." Brazil is in a tussle with Rome over abortion, contraception and HIV/AIDS prevention, and sympathy for the girl's plight threatened to shift public sentiment away from church decree. President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva favors loosening restrictions on abortion and promotes sex education, deploring that 30 percent of girls ages 15 to 17 drop out of school pregnant. The government gives away billions of condoms yearly, and Lula once called for a "national day against hypocrisy" regarding HIV/AIDS. The truth is, Brazilian women have abortions; they simply risk their lives to do so. Health officials say that each year about 200,000 women are hospitalized after botched procedures, and about 1 million terminate pregnancies.
Fisichella's point, however, was one of emphasis, not policy; the church, he lamented, seemed heartless. The haste and subsequent hue and cry, Fisichella wrote, "impacted the credibility of our teaching, which appears in the eyes of many as insensitive, incomprehensible and devoid of mercy." Well said. After all, the one person whose behavior did not expel him from the Catholic community was the girl's alleged rapist.