Earlier this year, government health officials sparked global outrage after refusing to allow a pregnant 10-year-old in Paraguay an abortion after she was allegedly raped by her 42-year-old stepfather. Paraguay's staunchly Catholic policy asserts that abortions, even in the case of incest and rape, are illegal, and obtaining one or self-terminating can result in up to 30 months in prison. This policy is waived if the pregnancy places the mother's life at risk, and according to a ruling released on Monday by the Inter-American Commission On Human Rights, the 10-year-old girl is four times more likely to die in childbirth than an adult. Previous studies have indicated the girl already suffers from both malnutrition and anaemia. In spite of this, the ruling did not mention abortion, and it is unlikely Paraguayan health officials will relent now that the child is more than six months along and it is too late for an abortion to be performed safely.
The ruling by the Inter-American Commission On Human Rights was relatively vague; it asserted the Paraguayan government should take more measures to protect the pregnant minor and permit her to make decisions regarding her health while her mother and stepfather are currently both in custody. The Commission gave Paraguay until Thursday to produce a formal response. If Paraguay's officials refuse to accommodate the ruling's demands, the Commission would accept a formal case at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Costa Rica.
The United Nations has previously condemned Paraguay's failure to protect the 10-year-old, while Amnesty International called Paraguayan health officials' treatment of the minor as "tantamount to torture." In May, Paraguay's health minister, Antonio Barrios, asserted the girl's health was not at risk, and that she was receiving proper medical and psychological care at Paraguay's capital in Asuncion. Baarios told Paraguay's ABC newspaper:
There are no indications that the girl's health is at risk ... we are not, from any point of view, in favor of terminating a pregnancy.
Msgr. Claudio Gimenez, the president of the country's Episcopal Conference, has previously described abortion as "the killing of an innocent who still is in a period of gestation." His words reflect Paraguay's ideological and disturbingly anachronistic justification for refusing to grant women — and, in this case, a child — the right to bodily autonomy.
On a more positive note, the 10-year-old's tragic experience has in some ways brought hope to human rights campaigners in Paraguay and other Latin American nations governed by similar pro-Catholic policies. Paraguay's treatment of the child has brought the global abortion debate more attention than ever before and inspired a movement led by Avaaz, an online global campaigning organization, to have abortions decriminalized in Paraguay for girls less than 15 years old. Protesters based in Paraguay have also risen in unprecedented numbers and are making similar demands. However, Paraguay-based protesters have yet to demand full abortion rights regardless of age.
Most Paraguay-based protesters are passionately marching to end the widespread sexual abuse of children. Andrea Cid, a UNICEF child protection officer, told Australian Broadcasting Corporation two girls between 10 and 14 give birth in Paraguay every day. Protesters specifically demand more severe penalties for sexually abusing children and may inspire more changes than any of the country's current abortion protests will given the rigid nature of Paraguay's pro-Catholic policy.
A 17-year-old girl observing protests in Ciudad del Este told the Associated Press she had been sexually victimized by her stepfather for five years before telling her mother at the age of 14. "If I had seen protests like this before, maybe I would have spoken up sooner, or maybe it wouldn't have happened to me," she said. These protests inspired by the pregnant 10-year-old's plight have not only offered insight to nameless victims but raised awareness of the pervasiveness of unreported sexual abuse. A protester named Sebastian Martinez told the Associated Press: "How many thousands of other girls are raped and we just don't hear about it because they don't have the baby or don't report it?"
Hope for justice for the pregnant child also emerged last month in the form of her stepfather's arrest. Her mother was imprisoned as well for "breaching her care of duty," though the mother reported her husband's behavior last year and requested an abortion for her daughter. That request was denied.
The religious extremism of Paraguay's policies subtly reflects recent infringements on women's rights to abortions in the United States. Conservatives in Texas, Alabama, Louisiana, and other states undermine these rights with policies aiming to hunt down abortion clinics, imposing similar religious ideology on American women. The global fight for women's abortion rights, medical privacy, and bodily autonomy is far from limited to Latin America.
Images: Getty Images (3), Dave Fayram/Flickr