All over the world, folks have been responding to the case of a nine-year-old Brazilian girl who was impregnated with twins by her stepfather. The stepfather has admitted to raping the child for years (along with her physically disabled sister). Abortion in Brazil is illegal except in cases of rape and to save the mother's life. Given that the nine-year-old weighed only 80 pounds, doctors and the child's mother decided that this case met both criteria. Despite a lawsuit filed by Catholic bishops intending to stop them, the doctors performed an abortion on the nine-year-old girl. Bishops then decreed that this was a case of automatic excommunication for the mother and doctors that facilitated the abortion; the nine-year-old, being a minor, was spared being cut off from the faith.
The Church made no such excommunication or spiritual threats or lawsuits against the man who raped his stepdaughter.
My sadness in this case comes not only from what has been done in the name of God to people who are living a nightmare, but from what might have been done to help. Sexual abuse, especially incest, is hard to stop. But once perpetrated it need not be made worse by ecclesial sanction.
A proper pastoral response would include: support for the pregnant child as she lives through an abortion; care for the mother who is responsible for the child and the rest of the family; protection for the family from the stepfather whose arrest may trigger backlash behavior; sensitive work with the other daughter who has also been sexually abused; HIV and venereal disease testing for the girls and the mother; economic support for the family; counseling for the family, the community, even the neighbors and parishioners who have been affected by this trauma; prayer and pastoral attention, including reception of the sacraments according to the family’s wishes. They need a spiritual community more than ever. Instead they got excommunication. “Is there anyone among you, who if your child asks for bread, will give a stone?” (Matthew 7:9). Apparently there are several in Rome and Brazil.
A friend of mine have shared an email conversation about this case. What follows in the rest of the entry are the (adapted) thoughts of mine that I shared with him:
... I don't doubt that many people oppose legal abortion out of sincere, thoughtful, spiritually-grounded belief. At the same time, I believe that the supporting
legal abortion also deserves to be respected as a sincere, thoughtful,
Such an extreme case as this nine-year-old's is worth considering: given
the trauma and the very literal risk of death that going through a
pregnancy would bring, how is it wise for the government (in a blanket ban
on abortion, for example) or the Church (by threatening to basically
cut off access to God) to determine that the potential life within her
is more valuable then her living, breathing existence? Have we really
come to a place where we'd say to this kid's face that it is worth
risking her life to give what is then in embryo form a shot at life?
I value the idea of early pregnancy being potential life. But it really isn't the same thing as living breathing human beings with independent bodies, not yet, and if it comes down to the value of the mother versus the value of the fetus, I'll choose the mother every time.
I'm interested in the point you and your friend brought up, about the idea of extreme stories like this one being used to make a political point one way or another. I agree that the line between sharing stories like this (and I do think they should be shared if the people concerned are willing) and exploitation is a thin one. Likewise, the same can be seen by the pro-life movement in using the stories of women who regret their abortions as indicative that every person in every situation who has an abortion will suffer terrible trauma and guilt and misery and so on. In my experience, this is simply not true and it's tiring in its use as a scare tactic. I'm sure there are women who had abortions who regret them, and I feel awful about it; nobody should be pressured into a situation to have one if it's not right by them/their doctors/their conscience/their God. But likewise I don't think it's right to pressure people into births that aren't right by them/their doctors/their conscience/their God.
And this is the heart of the pro-choice movement: it validates the right of a person to be pro-life, to not ever have an abortion, to advocate and agitate to keep others from having them. But it leaves room for people to make other choices if it is right for them and their situation. It adapts to the infinitely unique people and circumstances out there, rather than imposing a one-size-fits all system. Maybe stories like this one are exceptions (god, I hope so). But they happen. Regularly. Surely more than you or I know (oh, fickle media). And how are we to respond if we are to leave no breathing room whatsoever for responding to the real life person at hand who is suffering? It feels almost colonialist, to impose one group of people's will and moral code on another.
The thing with stories like this, while being extreme, is that they tend to put the overarching issues and pressures in high relief. I'm appalled that the Catholic Church went out of its way to excommunicate the people who were trying to live their consciences and help this kid (as I'm sure you agree, even if you disagree with their ultimate actions), while ... not a word is said about the man who raped her for three years and impregnated her. Likewise, I'm appalled by the Catholic Church excommunicating Fr. Bourgeois for supporting women's rights to be priests (not to mention excommunicating the women who get ordained) with such efficiency, when nothing was done about the priests who abused children for so long; in fact the Church enabled them by moving them along.
There are many things I love about the Catholic Church. Deeply. But when it reveals its priorities in "extreme" situations like these, I can't ignore it. Again and again, the people who are really trying to live their consciences to the best they can are pushed out, while the people who perpetuate the most egregious violence (the kind we all agree is truly violent on people we all agree are real life living human beings) are enabled and excused.
I cannot replicate the Church's behavior in my own actions. That is, I can't enable or excuse its use of spiritual threats and its way of throwing weight around in ways that I believe actively harm human beings. And I'm troubled by those who do ("oh well, it's the Church") because that gives it permission to continue. When is the limit? ...