The case of an 11-year-old who is 22 weeks pregnant has reignited the debate around abortion in Bolivia.The girl had been in the care of her 61-year-old step-grandfather, who allegedly raped her, in the town of Yapacaní, in the Santa Cruz province, for more than five months, while her mother and stepfather were in La Paz for work.She told a cousin that she was feeling “strange movements in her belly,” said Ana Paola García Villagomez, executive director of la Casa de la Mujer, a nongovernmental organization that advocates for women’s rights and has been involved in the case. The girl’s cousin told her mother, who alerted authorities.The case wound up before the Santa Cruz children’s ombudsman. “After her aunt reports it, the ombudsman intervenes, the girl goes through a psychological interview where she clearly says that all she wanted was for this to be over. She wanted to continue her studies, to be OK and to have what she had inside her body taken out,” García Villagomez said. “She didn’t say the word ‘baby’ or ‘pregnancy’ because she had no knowledge of what it meant to be pregnant.”Her step-grandfather was placed in custody. Last week, the girl’s mother brought her to the Percy Boland Women’s Hospital in Santa Cruz, seeking an abortion.In Bolivia, a 2014 constitutional ruling established that a pregnancy can be legally interrupted in cases of rape without the need to obtain a court order. (Women can legally have access to abortion in cases of rape among other exceptional circumstances since 1973. The 2014 ruling eliminated the need of a court order to perform the procedure.)
But last Saturday the girl’s mother, accompanied by a woman who claimed to be a lawyer for an organization associated with the Catholic Church, said that the girl had changed her mind, according to García Villagomez. The girl left the hospital and was placed in a shelter run by the church’s organization. “We haven’t been able to get in touch with the girl’s mother” since she stopped answering their calls, García Villagomez said.“There’s been a total violation of the rights of a poor child who’s 11 years old, who’s being forced to be a reproductive machine,” she said.In a statement issued Tuesday, the Bolivia’s Bishops’ Conference urged “authorities to respect and protect the right to live and the right to be healthy of both the girl, who is a victim of rape, and the unborn baby. Both lives should and ought to be protected.”“Since both her mom and the girl decided to continue with the pregnancy taking into consideration both the girl’s and baby’s health, other options should be sought, such as a adoption, since the girl is predictably not mature enough yet to take on taking care of the baby,” the statement continues.Advocates see that as an understatement. García Villagomez wondered about the emotional impact carrying the pregnancy to term and giving birth could have on the 11-year-old.Adolescent pregnancy comes with high risk, and babies born to adolescent mothers come with high risk of severe neonatal conditions, according to the World Health Organization. “Complications during pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death for 15-19-year-old girls globally,” the WHO warns, and risks can be even higher for younger adolescents.
The intervention of the church amid the reversal of the girl’s decision prompted agencies, activists and NGOs to assert the girl’s right to an abortion.Nadia Cruz, Bolivia’s human rights ombudswoman, said in a news conference Tuesday that her agency was filing a criminal complaint against the girl’s mother, the hospital’s personnel, the authorities from the Children’s Ombusdman in Santa Cruz and Yapacaní, the church organization and the Santa Cruz Bishop’s Conference, “for breach of duties, and human trafficking with the purpose of forced pregnancy.”Demonstrations over abortion rights erupted in La Paz Wednesday. The United Nations office in Bolivia called on authorities in a statement to protect children’s rights, adding that “to submit a girl to undergo a forced pregnancy is a form of torture.”“From the point of view of our faith, there’s an absolute conviction to protect life,” Susana Inch, legal counsel for the Bolivian Bishop’s Conference, said Thursday in the church’s show “Iglesia Viva e Diálogo.” “Even when there’s an instance of sexual violence, even when there’s a high-risk pregnancy, even when everything is unfavorable, the conviction is to protect and save that life under any circumstance.”García Villagomez said the church had overstepped its bounds.“It’s shameful what is happening in [Bolivia], a secular country,” García Villagomez said. “I don’t know what the Church is doing meddling in these kinds of issues.”
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