Editor’s Note: Recently the Catholic Church excommunicated a Brazilian
mother whose a nine-year-old daughter, impregnated by her stepfather, got a legal abortion, as well as the two doctors
involved. The national and international uproar resulted in the Church withdrawing
the excommunication. However, the debate is still alive within the Brazilian
society and in the blogs of Frances
Kissling and Elisabeth
Garber-Paul, RH Reality Check contributors. In order to get the Brazilian
perspective, Angela Castellanos interviewed Regina Jurkewicz, Executive
Coordinator of the Brazilian chapter of Catholics for Choice.
Angela Castellanos: This is not the first legal abortion in Brazil. Has the
Catholic Church previously excommunicated abortion practitioners?
Regina Jurkewicz: No, I do not know what happened with this Archbishop Jose
Cardoso Sobrinho. It is well known that the Catholic Church is against abortion
under any circumstances, but right now I think that excommunication is a
strategy from various groups such as conservatives, and religious fundamentalists,
particularly Catholics. It is a very unfortunate decision from the Archbishop
because it is an extreme case – a nine-year-old girl, who is so thin, not only
who has not a developed body to be able to carry a baby, but who was carrying
twins. However, this is the case in which the Archbishop announced the
excommunication of the mother and of the two doctors.
A.C.: Why have you concluded that this is an overall strategy coming from the
R.J.: I saw the same behavior in other countries, such as
Colombia and Chile, where there been threats of excommunication. In addition to
being a strategy which blocks the participation of the religious in their religion, it generates
indignation among the Catholics and Christians, and the population in
general. In Brazil, this case has mobilized people to say, “If you
excommunicate for this case, I want to be excommunicated too.” It also
generated a huge debate within the Church and within society, because it became symbolic of how cruel the Church can be. Simultaneously, this case
became an opportunity for people to talk about abortion and its surrounding
circumstances, to air taboos, to realize that there are thousands of other
cases of abortions.
A.C.: How can we explain that even though the Brazilian
population is Catholic, it criticizes the archbishop’s decision?
R.J.: While most Brazilians are Catholic, theirs is a
Catholicism that is flexible to other religions. For instance, there are
Catholics who are also “Spiritas” (Spiritualists), or who follow the “Umbanda”
(Afro-Brazilian religion), or who have even more esoteric practices. So there
is not a strict Catholicism. Moreover, people move from one faith to another
without trouble, for example from Pentecostal to Evangelical churches.
I consider that the strongest legacy of the Catholicism is
the moral vision of sexuality, which is true across Latin America. In Brazilian
society there are many ideas that stem from the Church, such as the
indissoluble marriage, and others related to sexual morality.
A.C.: What have been the reactions to the excommunication from
other faiths and religions?
R.J.: One can see a general rejection of the Archbishop’s
decision. There is not a unified voice among the religions regarding sexual and
reproductive issues. For instance, the Universal Church for the God’s Kingdom,
which is an important church and owns a television channel in Brazil, defends a
woman’s right to choose. But as to the nine-year-old girl who was raped, all Catholics,
theologians, priests and so on rejected the excommunication.
A.C.: How has this debate impacted the relationship between
the Catholic Church and the Brazilian State?
R.J.: The State has made its position very clear. President
Lula da Silva and the Secretary of Health made forceful declarations saying
that issues related to the legality of abortion are under
the State’s jurisdiction, and so the Church should not demonstrate its opinion
through punishments. Recently the Secretary of Health
congratulated the doctors who practiced the procedure on the nine year old. It
was a very impressive moment, because the Secretary abandoned the platform to
look for the doctors who were in the audience. I think the government is
behaving appropriately for a secular State, so far. And it is trying to make a
stand against the pressure from the conservative sectors.
A.C. What part of society do the conservatives work in?
R.J.: The conservatives have support from different parts of
society. For instance, the conservative group Opus Dei is a movement which has
been working with university students to gain their support. This is to say it
works with the elite of Brazil. Other conservatives have built the movement
“Brazil without abortion,” which works with Catholic and Spiritas people, many
of whom are members of the Parliament. They are working openly for a religious
cause and against abortion under any circumstance. There is, therefore, a conservative
charge in the Brazilian Parliament. Conservatives are members of many political
parties, including the PT (Labor Party). In fact, Luiz Bassoma, who is the
president of “Brazil without abortion,” and is Spirita, also serves as Federal
Deputy of Bahia from the PT, the same political party of the Brazilian
President. Although the PT has issued a document calling on its members to be
ethical and refrain from lobbying on behalf of churches, many have turned a
blind eye to this statement.
A.C.: Is the conservative orientation of the Vatican linked
to these excommunications?
R.J.: The conservative trend in the Latin American Church is
not new. It came from the previous Pope, but the current Pope has made
additional conservative declarations, such as one against homosexuality or one
against the use of condoms. Thus,
society is bombarded with moral declarations related to sexuality by the
Vatican and the Pope, who are answering questions that the people are not
asking. Nobody is asking whether or not to use condom; it is something that is
already in use.
A.C.: Do you think that these recent excommunications will
influence Brazilian doctors’ decisions in the future as to whether to perform
R.J.: In many cases the doctors refuse to practice legal
abortion based on religious conscientious objection. Others are afraid to
suffer the pressure against performing abortions from the hospital (where they
work), as well as external pressures from society in general to stop doctors
from performing abortions in hospitals.
However, this case has served to help doctors understand
that they have to attend to these cases. Why? Because on one hand, the doctors
who were excommunicated stated that they will do the procedure once again. And
on the other hand, as a result of the international and national reaction to
the excommunication, the Brazilian National Conference of Bishops as well as
the Vatican have withdrawn the excommunication. Even Brazilian politicians
against abortion influenced the decision by asking the archbishop to retract
the excommunication, because its effect was contrary to what was expected.