The mother told authorities her daughter must have been raped and singled out a prime suspect: her own husband, the girl’s stepfather.
By then, however, 42-year-old Gilberto Benitez had gone into hiding. While authorities launched a manhunt for Benitez, his wife demanded her daughter receive an abortion. But Paraguay, a devoutly Catholic country, allows abortion only in cases where the mother’s life is at risk.
A fierce public debate ensued. Amnesty International called on the government to allow an abortion, arguing that it was dangerous for a 75-pound girl to give birth. “The physical and psychological impact of forcing this young girl to continue with an unwanted pregnancy is tantamount to torture,” said Amnesty International’s Guadalupe Marengo in news release. “The Paraguayan authorities cannot sit idly by while this young rape-survivor is forced to endure more agony and torment.”
But Paraguayan Health Minister Antonio Barrios insisted that the girl was in good health and that a late-term abortion would be risky.
“The pregnancy will not be interrupted,” he said. “We’ve already completely ruled out abortion.”
The horrific case has further split Paraguayan society, which was already deeply polarized by history and politics. Twenty-six years after its end, the 35-year right-wing dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner still haunts the country. In 2012, leftist president Fernando Lugo was controversially impeached and removed from power in what other countries in the region called a coup d’état. And in 2013, Lugo’s party narrowly lost to Stroessner’s.
The current controversy over abortion and child abuse has reopened some of those old wounds.
“This girl became a uterus,” said Sen. Esperanza Martinez, a former health minister, during a recent congressional debate. “She became a birth canal.”
“The country is divided in two,” Msgr. Claudio Gimenez, one of Paraguay’s top clergymen, admitted during a Sunday homily, according to the Associated Press. “Some want to legalize abortion, the killing of an innocent who still is in a period of gestation. And for the other side, those who oppose that idea.”
Almost 700 girls between 10 and 14 years old gave birth in 2014 in Paraguay, a country of 6.8 million people. Twenty-eight minors died last year in Paraguay due to complications from childbirth, Vice News reported. Meanwhile, 14 underage mothers died due to failed abortions, also according to Vice News.
On Saturday, the scandal took another turn when Paraguayan authorities finally apprehended Benitez. Appearing in handcuffs and sporting a bloodied nose and bruised head, Benitez claimed he was innocent.
“I will do any [paternity] test to show it wasn’t me,” he said, adding that he had been set up by the girl’s mother. “I’ve been with tons of women, and I never got anybody pregnant,” he also said.
In one last twist to this sordid tale, the mother is also currently behind bars after being accused of enabling her daughter’s abuse. Should both her parents remain in prison, the 10-year-old girl and her baby will be wards of the state.
“The Justice Department will determine later who will have custody of the mother and child” after the birth, Barrios said.