Paraguay 'divided in two' by 10-year-old rape victim abortion case

Archbishop Monsignor Edmundo Valenzuela, head of the Paraguyan Catholic Church, has reportedly accused the UN of promoting a culture of death in advocating for abortion.Reuters

A tragic rape case in Paraguay has heightened tensions in a country long divided over religious and social issues. A pregnant 10-year-old girl has been denied an abortion – the procedure is illegal under Paraguayan law – and her step-father has been arrested, accused of her rape.

The girl was taken to hospital on April 21 by her mother after complaining of abdominal pain, and was found to be around 21 weeks pregnant. The mother has now also been arrested on suspicion of enabling her daughter's abuse.

According to Paraguay's Foreign Ministry, the girl is receiving medical and psychological support. Now five-months pregnant, however, she has been refused an abortion. Terminations are unlawful in the South American country unless the mother's life is in danger, and the Paraguayan Ministry of Health has said that there is no indication that she is at risk.

"The pregnancy will not be interrupted," Health Minister Antonio Barrios confirmed. "We've already completely ruled out abortion."

A group of UN human rights experts this week condemned this decision, citing World Health Organisation research that has found child pregnancies to be extremely dangerous, with the possibility of leading to significant complications and even death.

"The Paraguayan authorities' decision results in grave violations of the rights to life, to health, and to physical and mental integrity of the girl as well as her right to education, jeopardising her economic and social opportunities," the experts said in a statement.

"Despite requests made by the girl's mother and medical experts to terminate this pregnancy which puts the girl's life at risk, the State has failed to take measures to protect the health as well as the physical and mental integrity and even the life of the 10-year old girl.

"No proper interdisciplinary and independent expert assessment with the aim to insure the girl's best interests was carried out before overturning life-saving treatments, including abortion."

Amnesty International has backed the UN, and urged the Paraguayan government to overturn its decision. "We are calling on authorities there to show humanity and respect the dignity and wishes of this young girl and her mother. To do anything else would be a clear breach of international human rights law and a violation of this young girl's rights," said Guadalupe Marengo, Amnesty's deputy director for the Americas.

"This is a very young girl who has already experienced the deep trauma of rape and sexual abuse for a long time. All options, including an abortion, should be put on the table to prevent any further torment," she said.

The influential Catholic Church in Paraguay has defended the governent's decision to refuse an abortion, citing the Church's belief that life begins at conception. President of the Bishops' Episcopal Conference, Monsignor Claudio Gimenez, said in a homily: "Some want to legalise abortion, the killing of an innocent who still is in a period of gestation. The country is divided in two."

Archbishop Monsignor Edmundo Valenzuela, head of the Paraguyan Catholic Church, has also weighed into the debate. According to the BBC, he has accused the UN of promoting a culture of death in advocating for an abortion. Last month, he welcomed UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to the country, but warned in a Facebook post: "We cannot deny our concern regarding the pressures constantly exerted on the Paraguayan state, which is free and sovereign, by so-called 'UN experts,' many of whom adhere to obscure ideologies that openly contradict our human and Christian values.

"The moral strength of a nation is found in its beliefs and values which, lived in accord with a healthy integral education that takes into account all the dimensions of the person, must not reject faith, which is a fundamental dimension of the psycho-social and spiritual structure of the human being," he added.

It is "unfortunate", the Archbishop added, that various UN recommendations "are dedicated to promoting the legalization of abortion, euthanasia" and other issues. He insisted that the Church must advocate on behalf of children, "especially for those with some form of handicap and/or who are still in their mother's wombs and run the serious risk of being thrown out by society if the new canons of the culture of death, promoted by international agents at the global level, are accepted, and which legalize what is evil under the auspices of the State."

Peter D Williams, executive officer for pro-life campaign group Right to Life, told Christian Today that it's a "particularly difficult case" but that regardless of the circumstances, abortion denies the human rights of unborn children.

"The ethical conclusion we've come to as Right to Lifers is one of human dignity; that fundamentally, every human being possesses human dignity and that gives us rights. The most basic right of all is the right to life," Williams said.

There are no exceptions to human rights, he said. "You can't say we'll murder in one circumstance, or torture in can't say we'll allow a particular injustice now, but not in other cases."

The case in Paraguay has come about through very sad circumstances, and Williams noted the severe psychological and physical trauma the young girl will have experienced. "It's a hugely difficult situation, and we can all think about our own family members [going through the same thing]...but we can't allow sentiment and emotions to cloud reason, or allow it to override our belief in human rights," he said.

However, US-based organisation Catholics for Choice have urged the Paraguayan government to grant the young girl the freedom to make her own decision.

"We implore you to permit the 10-year-old and her family the right to exercise their conscience in deciding whether to have an abortion," President Jon O'Brien wrote in a letter to Barrios.

"In a pluralistic society such as Paraguay, many people recognise the morality of abortion and embrace public policies that uphold the human right of women to decide matters related to their reproductive health.

"I, and Catholics around the globe, call upon you to protect the health of the girls of Paraguay."