The case of the pregnant 9-year-old was shocking enough. But it was the response of the Catholic Church that infuriated many Brazilians. Archibishop Jose Cardoso Sobrinho of the coastal city of Recife announced that the Vatican was excommunicating the family of a local girl who had been raped and impregnated with twins by her stepfather, because they had chosen to have the girl undergo an abortion. The Church excommunicated the doctors who performed the procedure as well. "God's laws," said the archbishop, dictate that abortion is a sin and that transgressors are no longer welcome in the Roman Catholic Church. "They took the life of an innocent," Sobrinho told TIME in a telephone interview. "Abortion is much more serious than killing an adult. An adult may or may not be an innocent, but an unborn child is most definitely innocent. Taking that life cannot be ignored."
The case has caused a furor. Abortion is illegal in Brazil except in cases of rape or when the mother's life is in danger, both of which apply in this case. (The girl's immature hips would have made labor dangerous; the Catholic opinion was that she could have had a cesarean section.) When the incident came to light in local newspapers, the Church first asked a judge to halt the process and then condemned those involved, including the 9-year-old's distraught mother. Even Catholic Brazilians were shocked at the harshness of the archbishop's actions. "In this case, most people support the doctors and the family. Everything they did was legal and correct," says Beatriz Galli, the policy associate for Ipas Brasil, an NGO that fights to give women more say over their health and reproductive rights. "But the Church takes these positions that are so rigid that it ends up weakened. It is very intolerant, and that intolerance is going to scare off more and more followers." (See pictures of the Pope's last visit to Brazil.)
Brazilian devotion to the Catholic Church has declined over the past several years. Whereas Brazil was once an almost entirely Catholic nation, only 74% of Brazilians today admit allegiance to Rome, with large numbers, especially the urban poor, having defected to Protestant Evangelical sects. Many more water down their Catholicism with dashes of African religions such as Candomble or spiritist beliefs such as Kardecism. Only recently has the decrease in Catholic affiliation seemingly leveled off.
Evangelicals have not projected a united pro-life platform in Brazil, certainly not one as monolithic as the Catholic Church's. But at least one major sect, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, has taken a stance that showcases its differences with its Catholic rival. The Universal Church's television channel TV Record recently aired spots featuring a woman declaring, "I decided who to marry. I decided to use the pill. With my vote I decided who'd be elected President. I decided to work so that I won't be discriminated against. Why can't I decide what to do with my own body? Women should be able to decide for themselves what's important." (See the top 10 religion stories of 2008.)
The public-relations campaigns of the Catholic Church's rivals do not impress Archbishop Cardoso Sobrinho. He told TIME that the Vatican rejects believers who pick and choose their issues. Rome "is not going to open the door to anyone just to get more members," he said after comparing abortion to the Holocaust. "We know that people have other ideas, but if they do, then they are not Catholics. We want people who adhere to God's laws."
In Brazil, that hard line carries over into public life and government policy. While equally devout neighbors Mexico, Colombia and Uruguay have taken steps to give women more of a say in the matter of terminating pregnancies, Brazilian public opinion supports the status quo, and the country's Congress last year voted overwhelmingly to reject a modest attempt at decriminalizing abortion. The advances that have taken place are mostly local initiatives carried out almost surreptitiously, such as the move by São Paulo states to offer the morning-after pill and heavily discounted contraceptive pills at state-run pharmacies. (See pictures of São Paulo trying to renew itself.)
President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva did make a halfhearted attempt to spur a national debate last year, calling abortion a public-health issue even as he declared himself steadfastly against it. But with the Church quick to stifle such talk and the general public not sufficiently engaged to demand action, the debate never took off. In truth, abortions and unwanted pregnancies are a sad constant in Brazil. Although abortion is illegal, an estimated 1 million women each year have one. The poor are forced into clandestine clinics or take medication, while the better-off are treated by qualified physicians at well-appointed surgeries known to anyone with money and overlooked by colluding authorities.
That secrecy has a price. More than 200,000 women each year are treated in public hospitals for complications arising from illegal abortions, according to Health Ministry figures. Those who don't have the courage or the money to be treated take the pregnancy to term. Although the fertility rate has fallen considerably in Brazil (from 6.1 children in 1960 to about 2 today), 1 in 3 pregnancies is unwanted, according to Dr. Jefferson Drezett, head of the Hospital Perola Byington, Latin America's largest women's health clinic. Meanwhile, 1 in 7 Brazilian women between the ages of 15 and 19 is a mother, and the average age at which women have their first child has fallen to 21, from 22.4 in 1996, according to a government-funded study. (See pictures of America's purity ball.)
Those numbers shock the Catholic Church. But the Church's response to the Recife rape and abortion has shocked public opinion. Some Brazilians hope the controversy may compel the country to deal seriously with an issue that affects so many of its citizens. "Brazil wants to be a world leader, but the government can't guarantee equality for women," says Galli. "This is not a topic that anyone wants to debate."