I am concerned with Teresa Malcolm’s closing remark that “Abortion is illegal in Bolivia” (“Bolivian judge may face excommunication,” NCR, March 31). Readers might think that the judge’s legally sound decision to permit an abortion for the 12-year-old girl who was raped by her stepfather was inappropriate. While abortion is illegal in most circumstances in Bolivia, it is permitted in cases of rape. It was the doctors who did not obey the law by refusing to perform the abortion–not on legal grounds, but for religious reasons.
In response to the hospitals’ unlawful denial of the procedure, Catolicas por el Derecho a Decidir en Bolivia (Catholics for the Right to Decide) worked with the women’s movement in Bolivia to sensitize the media and the public to the issues involved in the case and the need for doctors to obey the law. Thanks to the movement’s efforts and the Catholic judge’s courage, the girl was able to have the abortion–only the second legal abortion in Bolivia.
In a country where one-third of maternal deaths are caused by illegal abortions, judges who uphold the law and respond to the suffering of girls and women with compassion and concern for their health and well-being should not be condemned–or excommunicated–but applauded. The church hierarchy’s incensed response to the devastating experience of the 12-year-old girl reveals how certain church teachings are not based in the compassion Jesus taught. The hierarchy’s misguided teachings on abortion cause great harm to the health and lives of girls and women, particularly those living in poverty.
Senior Associate, International Program
Catholics for a Free Choice
This letter appeared in the 5 May 2000 edition of the National Catholic Reporter.