Paraguay girl's rape case ramps up abortion debate before pope visit

ASUNCION Pope Francis last year called abortion "horrific." But for the mother of a Paraguayan girl, so too was the rape of her then 10-year-old daughter, who was denied a termination of her pregnancy by doctors and judicial officials.

When the Argentine-born pontiff lands in Paraguay on Friday, on the third and final leg of his "homecoming" tour, he will encounter an overwhelmingly Catholic nation struggling with violence against women and deeply divided over abortion.

Every day, two girls aged between 10 and 14 give birth in Paraguay, a landlocked South American country where one in five people live in poverty. Often there is a direct link to sexual violence. "My daughter told me there was nothing wrong, but no doubt because she was terrified, because he threatened her," sobbed the girl's mother, who cannot be identified in order to protect her daughter, now more than seven months pregnant.

The former partner of the girl's mother is accused of the rape.

Paraguayan law permits abortion if a mother's life is endangered. In this instance, a panel including medical doctors, psychologists and judicial officials determined that the life of the girl, now 11 and less than five-foot tall, was not at harm.

The case has played out publicly as the mother and abortion rights campaigners complained of perverted justice and lack of state and church compassion for the girl.

She is now in a shelter under state care against the wishes of her mother who was arrested as an accomplice, held in jail for two months and still faces trial. She says she is innocent and that a year ago she complained to police of the abuse but the authorities dropped the investigation. "Justice has been cruel to me. Nobody ever knew I was also a victim of this man," the mother said. "He abused me as well but I was too scared to out him."

CHILD MOTHERS

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights demanded in June that the Paraguayan government act to protect the girl. It said she was four times more likely to die in childbirth than an adult. The commission is part of the 35-member Organization of American States.

While Francis has not spoken out against abortion as sternly as his predecessors, he has shown no signs of changing the Catholic Church's position.

Latin America is second only to Africa in the prevalence of teenage pregnancies. Within the region, Paraguay ranks poorly and is witnessing an increase in the number of girls under 14 becoming pregnant, the United Nations says. "We're seeing that many of these girls are becoming mothers at the age of 10 before they have even had their first period,"said Adriane Salinas, a sexual health worker at the United Nations Population Fund in Paraguay.

The Catholic Church in Paraguay appeared to make an indirect reference to the young rape victim's case in May, defending the right to life as abortion rights activists urged a safe abortion.

Archbishop Edmundo Valenzuela at the time accused abortion rights campaigners of expounding views that were a "throwback to barbarity and inhumanity." Paraguay is not alone in its strict anti-abortion laws in South America, though some are taking steps toward a cautious liberalization.

Chile has a complete ban that was put in place during the final days of Augusto Pinochet's 1973-1990 dictatorship. President Michelle Bachelet's plans to relax rules can expect a tough passage through Congress.

El Salvador and the Dominican Republic also show signs of softening their stringent positions, while Colombia, Argentina and Bolivia permit abortions in certain situations.

On the eve of the pope's arrival, the young rape victim's mother prayed no other family suffer the same torment as hers. "I am a believer and I ask God and the pope that no one else suffers as I have," she said. "May those above look closely at what is going on and give me the chance to care for my daughter."

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