Vatican backtracks over doctors involved in providing abortion to a raped nine-year-old

Rome, Italy - The Vatican has backtracked over the excommunication of doctors in Brazil who performed an abortion on a nine-year-old daughter who became pregnant with twins after being raped by her 23 year old stepfather.

Archbishop Rino Fisichella, President of the Pontifical Academy for Life, said the excommunication not only of the medical team but also of the girl's mother had been a mistake. "Before thinking about an excommunication it was necessary and urgent to save an innocent life", he said. The excommunication had been decided on and publicised "too hastily".

Writing in L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, Archishop Fisichella noted that the excommunications had rebounded on the Church. "Unfortunately the credibility of our teaching was dented. It appeared in the eyes of many to be insensitive, incomprehensible and lacking in mercy." The girl "should have been above all defended, embraced, treated with sweetness to make her feel that we were all on her side, all of us, without distinction."

Last week the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops admitted that the excommunications of the mother and doctors of the girl had been wrong. It said the girl's mother had acted "under pressure from the doctors", who told her the girl's life was at stake and she would die if she gave birth because she was physically immature.

Dimas Lara Barbosa, the secretary-general of the Brazilian bishops said "We must take the circumstances into consideration". He said that equally there was "no clear case" for excommunicating the doctors, since only doctors who "systematically" conducted abortions should be excommunicated.

Earlier Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, head of the Vatican Congregation for Bishops, had backed the excommunications, saying the Brazilian bishops were right to take the view that the abortion was a sin. He said attacks on them were "unjustified."

The girl was found to be four months' pregnant after being taken to a hospital suffering stomach pains. Her stepfather, who is alleged to have sexually abused her since she was six, has been arrested.

However Monsignor Fisichella implied that the case was exceptional, saying it did not affect the Church's ban on abortion as a whole, which was "always bad". He added: "How should one act in these cases? An arduous decision for the doctor, and for moral law itself".

The excommunications were announced by Jose Cardoso Sobrinho, the Archbishop of Recife, the city in north-east Brazil where the girl's family lives. He said that all those involved had "broken God's law".

However Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva, the President of Brazil, praised the doctors for their decision to perform the abortion, saying that "as a Christian and a Catholic, I deeply regret that a bishop has behaved in such a conservative way. In this case, medicine is more right than the Church."

The row was inflamed when Archbishop Sobrinho said he had not excommunicated the stepfather because abortion was a more serious sin than rape. Abortion is illegal in Brazil except in cases of rape or when the mother's life is in danger.