BY BARBARA FRASER
THE PERUVIAN bishops have criticised a proposed change to the law that would legalise abortion in cases of rape or serious physical handicap in the unborn child.
Because the Peruvian constitution protects life from conception, there can be no exceptions or doubts about the protection of the unborn child, the bishops said. There is no situation or human difficulty that ustifies killing an innocent person, they said.
The change, recommended by a congressional commission charged with a broader overhaul of the criminal code, would also increase the penalty for a woman who has an abortion from three years in prison to five years and would criminalise artificial insemination against a woman’s will.
Archbishop Hector Cabrejos Vidarte of Trujillo, bishops’ conference president, issued a statement in which he wrote: “Life does not belong to us. It is God’s possession and has been put in our care. The first right that a person has is the right to life... No one has the right to give it to some and take it from others.” Abortion is illegal in Peru except when a woman’s life is in danger or when continuing the pregnancy could cause her lasting physical or psychological harm. The country’s health ministry has never issued a protocol regulating the practice of abortion in public health facilities, although some hospitals have their own protocols.
At present, the criminal code provides for a three-month prison term for abortion in case of rape outside marriage or “serious” malformation of the unborn child, which legal experts agree means defects that would make it impos sible for the child to survive outside the womb.
Because sentences of less than three years are not actually served in jail, in practice such cases are not punished even though abortion remains illegal, according to Maria Isabel Serrano, who heads the legal department at Demus, a non-profit organisation in Lima that provides legal assistance to women.
Although abortion is illegal, clandestine abortions are common. Adverts offering to solve “menstrual delay” can be found in newspapers and on telephone poles. One study estimated that as many as 300,000 backstreet abortions are performed in the country each year, and that botched abortions are one of the leading causes of death for women of childbearing age.
In an opinion poll published by the daily newspaper El Comercio, 58 per cent of respondents said abortion should be allowed when the mother’s life is in danger, 41 per cent said it should be permitted in cases of rape, and 46 per cent agreed with abortion in cases of serious defects in the foetus.
In a television interview Cardinal Juan Cipriani Thorne of Lima appealed to women to carry their pregnancies to term. “Don’t abort,” he said. “We (the Church) will take responsibility” for the child.
The congressional commission’s recommended change to the criminal code is the latest in a series of efforts to allow abortion in cases of rape and severe malformations. A previous effort failed during Peruvian President Alan Garcia’s first term in office. In 2005, the UN Human Rights Council ordered the Peruvian government to pay damages to a woman who was denied an abortion in 2001, when she was 17, after doctors determined that the child had encephalitis. In his statement Archbishop Cabrejos wrote that “life cannot be taken for any reason, or sacrificed, even to save someone. When exceptions to this principle are allowed, it opens the door” to abortion or euthanasia.
“Anyone who is willing to sacrifice the life of the foetus to safeguard the mother’s life, even in unfortunate cases of rape, begins with the assumption that the mother’s life has greater value than that of the child, which is arbitrary and false,” the statement said. “All human beings have the same dignity and the same worth.”