A life for a life?

Or:  when 1+2 may add up to zero.

A nine year old child was pregnant with twins after she was raped by her stepfather,  In Brazil, she met the two conditions, either of which is sufficient to make an abortion legal:  rape and threat to the mother’s  life.  According to doctors interviewed by the BBC, the girl’s uterus is too small to hold even a single child.

These facts have not satisfied the Roman Catholic Church, which is excommunicating all the doctors involved in the abortion. 

he Brazilian Health Minister Jose Gomes Temporao also told Reuters “I believe the position of the church is extreme, radical, and inadequate….I am shocked by the radical position of this religion which, wrongly saying it is defending a life, puts another life in danger that is as important as any other.”

The girl’s mother  is also up for excommunication.  No word on the father’s status in the religion, but  the  child is too young to be thrown out of the church.

21 thoughts on “A life for a life?

  1. The Vatican has now supported the Archbishop. He has pronounced on the father’s status:

    He also said the accused stepfather would not be expelled from the church. Although the man allegedly committed “a heinous crime … the abortion – the elimination of an innocent life – was more serious”.

    The Church apparently *wants* to be seen as callous and stupid.

  2. This is beyond sad. I realize the Church does not think we should ‘count’ lives against one another, but when all three ‘lives’ are likely to be lost – without the abortion – what is one to think? Even Kant made exceptions for survival.

    And, how could anyone claim that a man’s raping a 9 year old girl is less sinful than the girl’s having an abortion to save her life? I know, I know, I am arguing into the wind.

  3. There is of course something ironic about being Catholic and protesting decisions like this. If you disagree with the Vatican’s stance in this case, maybe you shouldn’t have been Catholic in the first place. Perhaps someone could argue for a different resolution which is nonetheless consistent with dogma, but I doubt that that’s what most of the commentators on this blog have in mind.

  4. Not to defend, but just to clarify, since there is some misinformation going around: strictly speaking the girl’s mother is not ‘up’ for excommunication; helping to obtain an abortion under canon law gives excommunication ‘latae sententiae’. That means it’s automatic — you excommunicate yourself by doing whatever falls under that label (it’s a penalty that mostly applies to desecration or deliberate and public rejection of the faith). All the Archbishop did was to point that out. And excommunication is not ‘getting thrown out of Church’ (which according to Catholic doctrine is impossible — not even the Pope can throw someone out of the Church); it just means that there are certain things you can’t do (give or receive sacraments) until you’ve done penance for what got you excommunicated.

    Abortion is an extremely heated topic in Brazil at the moment; there was another big row last year when a sixteen-year-old girl was strangled by her boyfriend because she became pregnant and refused to abort. The abortion law in Brazil is both very, very restrictive and very popular; although the abortion in this case was legal, it’s quite likely that the bishops’ handling of this case will cause people to question the law again.

  5. “Thrown out” as a metaphor may suggest physical action that won’t take place. But i think excommunicated people have considered themselves expelled.
    Having been a practicing RC for the first 20 or so years of my life, I want to stress the horror with which one can regard excommunication. It threatens one with the loss of divine love for all eternity. The courage required to risk it is quite extraordinary, especially since one is told time and time again that disagreement with the hierarchy on these sorts of issues indicates a sinful will that deserves eternal damnation. Either that or the credibility of the church has been greatly diminished.

    Mind you, sometimes I wondered who really took it seriously. It sometimes seemed more than anything else a way to try to control others.

  6. Namek, this poor child have no choice in the pregnancy and almost certainly no choice about religion. If the church had had its say, she and the twin fetuses would probably all be dead.

  7. jj,

    I think you’re right about how most Catholics regard the matter; I had just wanted to point out that such a view isn’t actually consistent with either Catholic doctrine or canon law. In Catholic doctrine, excommunication has nothing to do with salvation, because salvation has to do with baptism and God’s grace, and excommunication can’t eliminate either. In fact, its whole raison-d’etre is supposed to be remedial (and rare): i.e., the idea is that you’ve done something severely inconsistent with public profession of the Catholic faith, so you need to undergo a period of penitence to show that it wasn’t done out of obstinate opposition to the Catholic faith. You’re right, though, that there are members of the hierarchy who use it as a scare tactic to control others, and that there are laity who let themselves be scared by it; and, of course, nobody likes extended periods of penance, so there is still some bite to it. And, even setting aside the problems of a single-minded focus on the one issue of abortion in cases like this, the Brazilian bishops seem to have handled this matter very poorly; for instance, by calling out individual Catholics in public on the issue rather than sitting down with them in private and working something out.

  8. Brandon, I’m wondering if you have a post Vatican II understanding; mine is completely pre-V II. Yours should be the better interpretation now, though given that the present pope and some of the hierarchy are not so keen on V II, perhaps one should worry.

  9. brandon/jj, this is a bit of an aside, but i don’t know very much about catholicism and it sounds like you two do, and i’m curious. so: if you’re excommunicated–according to catholic doctrine–is it not the case that, if you die in such a state, you go to hell?

  10. At the very least I would have thought that excommunication, in a country where religion is such an integral part of everyday life, would mean profound social exclusion… So even apart from the more specific mechanics of belief and canon law, it would seem that this is an extremely punitive (and deeply misogynist) response by the Church.

  11. i dont get it. shes a rape victim. the babies should be aborted because its not her fault. im not saying im for abortion but it wasnt like she had unprotected sex with her friend or boyfriend, which in that case i would say that they shouldnt be killed.

  12. Hi, JJ,

    It shouldn’t make a difference in principle, since it follows from Catholic doctrines of baptism and grace going back at least to Trent. But I think we both agree that what people are committed to in principle and what they actually practice and say can diverge, and often do when issues of power are involved, and you might be right that in practice this is a difference between pre- and post-VII. One perhaps sees something like this in changing attitudes toward Protestants and Orthodox: they were once regularly accused of the sins of heresy and schism; now, although the doctrine on heresy and schism hasn’t changed, it has become much more common to doubt whether Protestants and Orthodox are really guilty of either.


    Strictly speaking, the Catholic position is that we cannot say with any certainty who is damned or not — that is, it is impossible to say with certainty that if you do this (whatever it may be), you’ll end up in hell, because this is presumption against the mercy of God. Dying in an unrepentant state of mortal sin results in hell (and is the only thing that does so), but no one can be guaranteed to have died in this way, either, because we can’t read the human heart. Excommunication is not the same as mortal sin, though — it’s purely a disciplinary measure, and it is supposed to be remedial (and temporary); if there’s a connection in people’s minds between the two, it’s because excommunication is often linked in people’s minds to the issue of mortal sin. The Catholic view is that baptism is indelible — it can’t be undone by anyone except God — and it is baptism that makes you part of the Church; and anyone who is part of the Church at least has a definite chance for salvation, if they are willing to repent their sins.


    Although I’m not sure it’s for the same reason, I would very strongly agree with you, at least as far as this case goes; latae sententiae excommunication can be handled privately, and all such matters are supposed to be handled discretely when they can be, but it is very clear that the Brazilian bishops in this case deliberately publicized it, thus treating the lives involved as subordinate to merely making a point.

  13. I will leave the discussion of Catholicism to those who know it best; I am a recovering Lutheran, we weren’t allowed to talk to Catholics until everybody got ecumenical in the 70s. (kidding, mostly…) But there is a more pressing concern for me, and that is the complete abandonment of Jesus’ teachings for the sake of religious doctrine. Compassion and love for this child made an abortion the only humane thing to do.

    Those who believe that we fell from grace in the Garden of Eden might want to consider that, if we are blessed and cursed with knowledge, the least we could do is to use it responsibly.

  14. Brandon,
    Just a bit from Aquinas (the reference on the web wasn’t clear; it’s the summa theologica, Q 23, I think, but it doesn’t say which part. (I don’t have the Latin text and so can’t speak to the playing out of gender in the reference to the father.)

    Excommunication is twofold: there is minor excommunication, which deprives a man merely of a share in the sacraments, but not of the communion of the faithful. Wherefore it is lawful to communicate with a person lying under an excommunication of this kind, but not to give him the sacraments. The other is major excommunication which deprives a man of the sacraments of the Church and of the communion of the faithful. Wherefore it is not lawful to communicate with one who lies under such an excommunication. But, since the Church resorts to excommunication to repair and not to destroy, exception is made from this general law, in certain matters wherein communication is lawful, viz. in those which concern salvation, for one is allowed to speak of such matters with an excommunicated person; and one may even speak of other matters so as to put him at his ease and to make the words of salvation more acceptable. Moreover exception is made in favor of certain people whose business it is to be in attendance on the excommunicated person, viz. his wife, child, slave, vassal or subordinate. This, however, is to be understood of children who have not attained their majority, else they are forbidden to communicate with their father: and as to the others, the exception applies to them if they have entered his service before his excommunication, but not if they did so afterwards.

  15. Just to keep the news of it update, the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops ruled that the mother acted under pressure and that therefore the rule does not apply.

    Hi, JJ,

    The question is from the Supplement to the Third Part, which is probably why the website was vague: St. Thomas never finished the Summa, and so the last part of the Summa, the Supplement, consists of abbreviated versions (by his students) of questions from his very early commentary on Peter Lombard’s Sentences. So it’s sort of in the Summa and sort of not.

  16. brandon i’ve just noticed your nice intro to catholicism in reply to my question. thanks much for explaining that to me!

  17. Funny, ‘A Life for A Life’ is also the dramatic story about a real woman living in the 19th century, with a lot of parallels and a dramatic and enlightign end.

    history is recurring, no doubt about it.

    i searched a little bit:

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