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Punishing the Victim in the Yucatan

In Mexico and throughout North and South America, the story of a little girl who was allegedly attacked by her stepfather is capturing headlines, and once again reviving a debate over abortion. The 10-year-old girl from the state of Quintana Roo, in the Yucatan peninsula, has been sent to social services not simply because she was raped, but because she's pregnant.

On its own, the danger the pregnancy poses to the girl's life, as well as the violation and the loss of trust, would be reason enough to place the young girl in care. Sadly, it appears that the state is less interested in protecting the girl's health and rights than those of the fetus she carries. One of the few indications for legal abortion in Mexico is rape, but this is only the latest of any number of cases in which the government, police or health system have actively prevented women from exercising their rights.

Leaving aside the emotional cost of carrying the child of her attacker, a full-term pregnancy carries significant physical risk for a young girl who is not physically developed. The risk of dying in pregnancy is 60 percent greater for adolescents than for women 20-24 years old. And regardless of age, terminating a pregnancy is much less risky than carrying a pregnancy to term. Terminating the pregnancy, even at this late stage -- the little girl is now 18 weeks pregnant -- carries less risk to her health, and will allow her to begin to heal emotionally from the experience. However, the more an abortion is delayed, the more traumatic the procedure will be.

This is not the first time the Mexican government has put aside concerns about a woman's health or human rights, and forced her to carry a pregnancy to term. In the case of one 13-year old girl, Paulina Ramirez, she and her family took their case to the InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). She settled with the government of Mexico before the IACHR could issue its ruling. In their agreement, the government agreed to pay for the child's health and education expenses, and issue a decree clarifying the right to abortion for victims of rape. (The experience so galvanized Paulina that she is an abortion rights activist even to this day.)

What's more, Mexico is not alone. In Peru, where the law permits abortion when a woman's life or health are in danger, a 17-year-old was denied an abortion and forced to carry an anencephalic fetus to term. The United Nations Human Rights Commission ruled that the government's actions constituted cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. In Nicaragua recently, doctors refused to provide medical treatment to a young pregnant woman with advanced cancer, until the IACHR issued protective measures. The reason for withholding treatment? Nicaragua banned all abortion in 2006, and doctors were more afraid of damaging the fetus than of what would happen to a sick woman with a 10-year-old child to support.

Throughout Latin America, governments and conservative religious leaders have elevated the rights of the "unborn" above those of girls and women -- so much so that they have repeatedly put women's lives and health at risk, violating their human rights. When we express sadness and horror at cases like these, we must also examine how we allow religious authorities to pit a woman against her fetus, as if they were in conflict. In reality, a fetus is entirely dependent upon the individual carrying it; it is her health that must be protected first and foremost. Yet state and religious actors opposed to abortion insist on perpetuating the false conflict of woman versus fetus; as this Mexico case shows, it can work in their favor.

But they do not always succeed. In Brazil last year, the Catholic church threatened to excommunicate the mother of a nine-year old girl who had been raped, because she sought an abortion for her daughter when she was found pregnant. The public outcry was so great that the church changed course and only excommunicated the doctors who performed the procedure. They did not, however, excommunicate the man who raped the little girl; according to Archbishop Don Jose Cardoso of Recife, "a graver act than [rape] is abortion, to eliminate an innocent life."

Ultimately, there could be no better illustration of their disregard for the lives of women and girls.

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