Vatican Official Defends Child's Abortion

By Francis X. Rocca
Religion News Service
Saturday, March 21, 2009

VATICAN CITY -- The Vatican's top bioethics official said the two Brazilian doctors who performed an abortion on a 9-year-old rape victim do not merit excommunication, because they acted to save her life.

The statement, by Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, appeared as the lead article in last Sunday's issue of the official Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano.

"There are others who deserve excommunication and our forgiveness," Fisichella wrote, addressing the unidentified rape victim, "not those who permitted you to live and who will help you to regain hope and faith."

The case drew international attention earlier this month after the local Catholic archbishop excommunicated the doctors who aborted the girl's twin fetuses, as well as the girl's mother.

The child was 15 weeks pregnant, allegedly after being raped by her stepfather. Weighing only 80 pounds, she might have died if forced to carry the pregnancy to term, the doctors said.

While reiterating Catholic teaching that abortion is an "intrinsically wicked act," Fisichella suggested that under the circumstances, it might have been the lesser evil.

"Her life was in serious danger because of the pregnancy in progress," Fisichella wrote. "How to act in these cases? An arduous decision for the physician and for the moral law itself."

In contrast with church authorities' typically uncompromising statements on abortion, Fisichella stressed the degree of moral discretion that the doctors were forced to exercise.

"The conscience of the physician finds itself alone when forced to decide the best thing to do," he wrote. "A choice like that of having to save a life, knowing that one puts a second at serious risk, never comes easily."

The article did not explicitly mention the girl's mother, who was excommunicated for authorizing the abortion. Church officials have said the girl is not under threat of excommunication.

Another extraordinary aspect of Fisichella's article was its frank rebuke of José Cardoso Sobrinho, archbishop of Olinda and Recife, whom it accused of having "rushed" to declare the excommunications -- "a judgment as heavy as a meat cleaver" -- when his first task should have been the pastoral care of the victim.

Cardoso Sobrinho's action harmed the "credibility of our teaching, which appears in the eyes of so many as insensitive, incomprehensible and lacking in mercy," Fisichella wrote.

Because church law requires the automatic excommunication of anyone who collaborates in an abortion, Fisichella wrote, "there was no need . . . for such urgency and publicity" in declaring the fact.

Fisichella's article also implicitly contradicted Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, head of the Vatican's Congregation for Bishops, who had publicly defended Cardoso Sobrinho's action earlier this month.

Vatican officials rarely air their differences in public, let alone on the front page of the pope's newspaper.

According to respected Vatican journalist Sandro Magister, Fisichella's article was probably approved in advance by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who as secretary of state is considered the Vatican's No. 2 official, after Pope Benedict XVI.

After nearly two months of international controversy over the pope's decision to readmit a Holocaust-denying bishop to the church in late January, Magister called this case of crossed signals the latest indication of confusion at the highest levels of the Holy See.

"It is yet another sign of the disorder that reigns in the Curia," Magister said, referring to the church's international governing bureaucracy. "It shows that Benedict XVI is paying the price for refusing to reform the Curia."

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