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Abortion absolutists: Will Latin America's child motherhood evil become America's?

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Andre Penner
/
AP
Brazilian abortion rights advocates march in Sao Paulo this year.

COMMENTARY Cases in countries like Paraguay should remind anti-abortion rights absolutists that by preventing one "evil," they risk committing others.

As America mutates into a theocratic handmaid’s tale, there’s more buzz than ever about Latin America morphing into an unlikely new abortion-rights sanctuary — Colombia this year being the latest country there to legalize the procedure. But in most of that region, it’s still reproductive night — and a recent case in Brazil is a reality check.

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Brazil allows abortion only in cases of rape, incest or threat to a mother’s life. One and likely all three of those criteria were met after a 10-year-old girl was raped in the small southern state of Santa Catarina. When her family realized in May she was pregnant, they unsurprisingly sought an abortion. But an anti-abortion rights judge tried to force the now 11-year-old to carry the pregnancy to term and prevent the girl from “committing homicide.” Fortunately, saner judicial officials finally stepped in and the child’s monstrous, sickening pregnancy was terminated last week.

This sort of medieval drama plays out regularly across Latin America — especially in Brazil’s neighbor, Paraguay, where human rights groups say an average of two girls between the ages of 10 and 14 give birth each day because abortion restrictions there permit no exception for circumstances like rape. U.S. abortion-rights advocates warn this is what awaits states that will ban abortion now after the Supreme Court gave them the green light last week.

READ MORE: Anti-abortion extremists: Look first at Latin America's dark, dangerous path

That could happen in Florida, though the constitution might block an outright ban. In the meantime, holding up cases like Brazil's and Paraguay's might help persuade the state’s anti-abortion rights absolutists that their arguments have holes big enough to lead a Planned Parenthood march through them.

I was reminded of the most fundamental while listening to Miami’s Roman Catholic Archbishop Thomas Wenski on WLRN’s Sundial program this week. Wenski explained the Catholic church’s doctrinal opposition to abortion under any circumstance — which would include that of the Brazilian child — by insisting that while a pregnancy like hers results from an evil, “no one can do another evil so that good may come from it.”

Understood. But here’s the hole: Wenski and the absolutist legions ignore the reality that they themselves risk committing an evil. Forbidding abortion in cases like these puts the health, if not life, of a child — one who’s hardly physically and emotionally prepared to carry a fetus to term, let alone deliver it — in all too real danger.

Anti-abortion rights regimes like Paraguay's perpetrate a third evil so they can declare they prevented a second evil from being committed in response to the first, child pregnancy evil.

Or need I remind them of the 14-year-old Paraguayan girl who died giving birth during an emergency cesarean section four years ago? She suffered an embolism and three cardiac arrests.

Or, for that matter, need I remind them how lousy countries like Paraguay — and poorer U.S. states — are at providing maternal social services, not to mention the adoption options that anti-abortion rights activists like U.S. Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett glibly claim make abortion “unnecessary”? Even if the Paraguayan girl had survived the C-section, she’d likely have faced single motherhood at the age of 14 — and most likely impoverished motherhood.

SCIENTIFIC UNCERTAINTY

Either way, a third evil was perpetrated by the anti-abortion rights regime in Paraguay — so its dogmatists could declare they’d prevented a second “evil” from being committed in response to the original evil.

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Jose Luis Magana
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AP
Catholics at an anti-abortion demonstration in Washington D.C. last year.

That's a key reason a majority of U.S. Catholics like myself — 64% in the latest poll — support abortion rights at least in the early stage of pregnancy. And it leads us to what we consider the other big hole in the absolutist argument: the “human life begins at conception” claim. It's not scientific “fact,” as Wenski asserted on Sundial. It might be a theological certainty for Catholics like him, which I respect; but it is a scientific uncertainty at best, considering a fetus in that primordial phase is a vegetative, non-sentient, non-viable organism.

So, in the minds of most U.S. Catholics, it has no business being a legal certainty, either. Revered Catholic theologians like the Jesuit John Courtney Murray, while they may have opposed abortion, have long warned against trying to make a pluralist legal consensus — which is what U.S. abortion rights have been for half a century — genuflect to a particular religious morality.

And that theocratic tale would be just as dangerous in Florida and the U.S. as it’s proven to be in Brazil and Paraguay.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.