Sunday, March 8, 2009

More thoughts on Brazil, Catholicism, and abortion

by Molly Borowitz

I first read this article on Thursday when my boyfriend sent it to me in an email entitled “are you s***ing me?” (The content was a link to and the sentence “This makes me so mad.”) Given the debate that Josh's earlier post has sparked, I do want to add my thoughts (and some reconsiderations) to the discussion, but I wanted to give y'all that background so you would know which side of the fence I’m on. I am Catholic. I don’t agree with abortion. I wouldn’t have one myself (a fact which startles most of my friends and my boyfriend, who got the shock of his life when he bravely asked, “If you got pregnant, what would you do?”). However, being a fundamentally more politicized than religious person, I believe we (being American citizens) don’t have the right to make that decision for other people. It’s her body, and just because I wouldn’t have one doesn’t give me the right to keep her from doing so.

Okay. Having thoroughly established my position, I’d like to revisit the original article. Let’s start with Brazil’s abortion laws, which are much more restrictive than those of the United States: abortion is legal if and only if the mother has either been raped or the pregnancy constitutes a fatal health risk. If, as Chloe points out in her comment, the mother is a “twenty-five year-old with a decent income who had consensual sex and is at no physical or psychological risk from bearing the child,” she is not legally eligible for an abortion in Brazil (although she would be in the United States). The penalty for performing an abortion on oneself, undergoing the procedure, or consenting to perform it on another person is one to three years in prison. The punishment increases if the procedure results in injury or death.

As we have established, the little girl herself was not excommunicated. BBC states very clearly that “the excommunication applies to the child’s mother and the doctors involved in the procedure,” and further, that the Church stated publicly that “the excommunication would not apply to the child because of her age.”

However—abortion is legal in Brazil under the conditions of rape and fatal health risk. This poor child met both conditions. Her pregnancy was the result of prolonged sexual abuse—about three years’ worth—at the hands of her stepfather (who attempted to flee Pernambuco after being accused of sexually abusing her 14-year-old sister, who is physically handicapped). If that’s not rape, I don’t know what is. Further, the girl is nine years old, and therefore not physically capable of surviving childbirth. BBC reports that “doctors at the hospital said they had to take account of the welfare of the girl, and that she was so small that her uterus did not have the ability to contain one child let alone two.” (In case this particular detail was overlooked, the girl was pregnant with twins.)

I understand—and agree—with Christina’s point that “procuring an abortion is not negligence. If she had been old enough to choose not to have an abortion, or if her mother had chosen not to have the abortion done, it would be horrifically negligent not to give her the best prenatal care possible.” However, I think that assertion is a bit idealistic, considering the cost of prenatal care in a country like Brazil, where state health care only covers very specific procedures and prescriptions. Could her mother, already caring for another, physically-handicapped child, afford to keep her in the hospital for months? Given her size, the girl would probably have needed an emergency C-section before the babies were full-term (since the doctors determined that her uterus would not be able to hold them), which would have meant incurring even greater expenses keeping the premature babies alive in newborn intensive care (perhaps for months) and treating a post-operative nine-year-old with huge scars in her abdomen and reproductive organs. Would the State have agreed to help cover these expenses if the girl was legally eligible for an abortion?

And my last point. We have no way of knowing what the girl herself wanted to do. We assume, because she is so young, that her mother and the doctors must have made the decision. However, it is possible that the girl had more say than we realize. BBC reports that “the fact that she was pregnant with twins was only discovered after she was taken to hospital in Pernambuco complaining of stomach pains.” Imagine you’re nine years old, and your stomach hurts badly. Your mom takes you to the hospital, and the doctor tells you that in a few months you’re going to have not one but two babies. And that having those babies might kill you. I don’t know what y'all would have done, but—despite being a very alert, precocious, and articulate nine-year-old—I would have burst into tears, hugged my mom, and begged her to make it stop. Now imagine you’re her mother. What would you do? Would you (potentially) sacrifice your child’s life when you were legally and medically capable of saving it?

I think it’s all too easy to argue for an abstract ideology when you have no conception of the practical experiences of the people involved. Whatever religion you profess, please keep this girl and her family in your thoughts. They have undergone an experience to which I hope none of us will ever be able to relate.


At March 9, 2009 at 12:05 AM , Blogger Angelina said...

I would like to commend you on your very thoughtful response to a terrible atrocity.

It's great to see someone else articulate what it's like to be, in essence, personally pro-life and politically pro-choice (which is where I'd align myself too.)

I've been following this story on Equalwrite and in the news. This ongoing debate has a serious need for thoughtful arguments that don't focus on hypotheticals or intangible moral doubts.

Well done!

At March 9, 2009 at 8:47 PM , Anonymous Dan said...


Thanks for this thoughtful post.

I tend to agree with Roscoe's comment to the previous post: I think one could build a case for abortion in this kind of situation, even while acknowledging the personhood of fetuses. The reason we are talking past each other is because one side is relying on their assumption that the fetus is not a person. This kind of argument is simply a non-starter for the pro-life side.

Whether or not you can build such a case, the Church has a duty to provide guidance based on the best moral reasoning it can muster. Christina has expounded on this at length, but roughly speaking it's a matter of first doing no harm, and then making the best possible effort to save everyone. The way this might play out in practice is by "early induction" -- see for example:

Regarding what the girl would have wanted in this case, it seems that we do not know and we are merely speculating (as you point out). What if she really wanted to have the babies, but was forced to have an abortion anyway?

Finally, regarding being "personally pro-life and politically pro-choice", that would be fine if your pro-life views were motivated entirely by religious beliefs that could not be backed up with a reasoned moral philosophy. I used to think that way, but over the years I discovered a couple of things that changed my perspective. Firstly, there is a sound rational basis for the assertion that human embryos deserve full moral respect (see my comment to the previous post). Secondly, through my wife's experience as a volunteer at a crisis pregnancy organization, I know that many women are coerced into having an abortion, most often by a boyfriend or a husband, but sometimes also by parents. It seems to me that the availability of abortion with few restrictions has enabled some men to objectify women to a greater degree than ever before.


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