14 Mar 2009

Brazilian bishops back down over 9-year-old's abortion

9:07 pm on 14 March 2009

Brazilian bishops have cancelled the excommunication of the mother and doctors of a nine-year-old girl who had an abortion after being raped.

They said the decision to excommunicate was wrong and would not be applied.

The National Conference of Bishops of Brazil (CNBB) decided on Thursday that the child's mother acted "under pressure from the doctors" who said the girl, pregnant with twins, would die if she carried the babies to term.

CNBB secretary-general Dimas Lara Barbosa told reporters the mother therefore could not be excommunicated. "We must take the circumstances into consideration," he said.

As for the doctors, there was no clear case for expelling them from the church either, he said - contrary to the position taken by Archbishop Jose Cardoso Sobrinho, who announced the excommunications earlier in March.

Mr Barbosa said that only doctors who "systematically" conduct abortions are thrown out of the Roman Catholic Church.

Girl said she'd been abused since age of six

The case of the young girl, allegedly raped by her stepfather in the state of Pernambuco, has been highly controversial in Brazil. Archbishop Sobrinho's position that the abortion was "more serious" than the rape prompted much public debate, with many denouncing his lack of compassion.

Officials said the girl told them she had been abused since the age of six by her stepfather, 23, who also allegedly sexually abused the girl's physically handicapped 14-year-old sister.

The man was arrested a week ago and is being kept in protective custody.

Archbishop 'misinterpreted'

In an effort to mitigate the archbishop's declarations, CNBB president Geraldo Lyra Rocha said his colleague had been misinterpreted.

"Archbishop Sobrinho did not excommunicate anyone," he said. "I am sure he did not mean to harm anyone but rather wanted to draw attention to a certain permissiveness (over abortions)."

Abortion is illegal in Brazil except in cases of rape or if the woman's health is in danger. But a million women still seek clandestine abortions in operations, and thousands die from them.