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Brazilian Judge Denies Abortion to 11-Year-Old Rape Victim, Previewing Post-Roe America

It's not just Brazil—across the US, lawmakers are already boasting about the bans they'll pass without rape exceptions, which are already mostly symbolic.

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Photo: AP (AP)

A judge in Brazil denied an abortion to an 11-year-old who had been impregnated by rape, saying she didn’t want to enable a “homicide,” Newsweek reported on Monday. The young girl had reportedly been raped in her home earlier this year, and when she was taken to the hospital upon learning she was pregnant, a doctor at the University of Santa Catarina denied her an abortion because she was more than 22 weeks pregnant. The university hospital’s rules prohibit doctors from offering abortion care to someone past 20 weeks of pregnancy, without a court order.

Brazil notably criminalizes abortion and threatens abortion patients with one to three years in prison, and providers with one to four years. The country provides exceptions only for threats to the pregnant person’s life, when the fetus is deemed unviable, and, relevant to this case, if the pregnancy is the result of rape.

Joana Ribeiro Zimmer, the judge who refused to allow the 11-year-old girl to have an abortion, reportedly justified this decision by claiming if she allowed the abortion, she would fail to “[protect] the daughter,” referring to the 11-year-old’s unborn fetus, and would have been “subjecting her [the fetus] to a homicide.” Zimmer is now under investigation by Brazil’s Court of Justice, but the damage has been done: The child, who is already living with the trauma of surviving rape, now faces the added violation of forced pregnancy and the tremendous health risks associated with adolescent birth. Newsweek reports the girl is currently living in a shelter for women to protect her from her abuser/rapist at home.

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As countries across Latin America and around the world take monumental steps to legalize abortion, this traumatic case offers a terrifying preview of post-Roe v. Wade America, with the Supreme Court’s decision on abortion rights imminent. Anti-abortion governors—who will soon decide whether their respective states ban abortion—and lawmakers are already bragging about the bans they’ll enact sans exceptions.

Of the dozens of states with pre-Roe abortion bans, trigger laws that will almost immediately ban abortion, or near-total bans, Guttmacher Institute’s research shows most lack exceptions for rape. Even prior to the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion reversing Roe, Jezebel reported on the phenomenon of rape exceptions recently disappearing from state abortion restrictions and bans.

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In one of the more chilling interviews an anti-abortion politician has given on the issue, death penalty-supporting Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts—who plans to call his legislature to a special session once Roe falls to immediately ban abortion—insisted, repeatedly, that even if a pregnancy is the product of rape, “yes, they’re still babies.” The 11-year-old rape victim in Brazil is a baby, too, and harrowing cases like hers will surely be enabled in a post-Roe U.S.—what about these babies?

It’s important to emphasize, however, that despite how some “pro-life” politicians continue to posture as being supportive of rape victims, rape exceptions to abortion bans are primarily symbolic. They benefit legislators by making these laws appear more humane rather than rape victims. Many rape exemptions require victims to report and prove their rape to law enforcement or doctors, despite how the majority of sexual assaults aren’t reported to police, and data has shown few survivors impregnated by rape have invoked the exception. Instead, rape exceptions spread the misconception that rape is easy for victims to “prove” and relegate the re-traumatizing process of reporting rape to a mere footnote in the process of obtaining an abortion.

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After all, Brazil’s abortion ban has a rape exception, and an 11-year-old victim was still denied care. The only actual way to prevent survivors from being forced to carry their rapists’ babies is to just not ban or restrict abortion at all.

IPAS, an international organization that supports abortion and contraception access, notes that despite Brazil’s abortion ban, “an estimated one million Brazilian women have abortions every year,” and “many of those women, particularly those without the financial or social resources to see a well-trained, willing provider, run a huge legal risk when they decide to end an unwanted pregnancy.” This, unfortunately, highlights another parallel between reproductive rights in Brazil and the US: In the US, criminal charges for abortion and pregnancy loss have sharply increased in recent years. The fall of Roe is slated to reduce pregnant people’s bodies to not just incubators, but literal crime scenes.

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The 11-year-old rape victim in Brazil tragically isn’t alone as a child impregnated by rape and denied abortion care in a Latin American country in recent years. Also in Brazil, a 10-year-old girl impregnated by rape was initially denied an abortion in 2020 before a judge intervened; still, she had to travel 900 miles for the procedure. Last year, an 11-year-old rape victim in Bolivia was denied an abortion. Another rape victim, also 11 at the time, was also forced to remain pregnant and give birth in Paraguay in 2015.

With the US poised to decimate abortion rights, we can’t ignore how rape victims—particularly those who are children—will be among the most harmed. All abortion bans are gender-based violence, and render the state an abuser with total control over the pregnant person’s body and life.