When these pleas failed, the prosecutor intervened. Would the girl consider adoption “instead of letting him die – because he’s already a baby, a child – instead of letting him die in agony?”
Ribeiro Zimmer ordered the girl taken from her family — to protect the fetus, she said.
A leaked video of the hearing, published in June by Intercept Brazil, has shaken Latin America’s largest country, which maintains strict restrictions on abortion.
The procedure is only legal in Brazil in cases of rape, incest or serious fetal abnormality. But abortion rights advocates say the 10-year-old’s case shows how even women with a valid reason face resistance from hospital policies, bureaucracy and an often hostile justice system.
“What we see in Brazil and other Latin American countries where abortion is criminalized, in addition to the law, there are barriers created that make it more difficult to access care,” Debora said. Diniz, an anthropologist at the University of Brasilia who studies abortion rights. “And the most vulnerable, the most fragile people are the most impacted.”
Diniz said cases such as the child’s could foreshadow what’s to come in the United States now that the Supreme Court has overturned Roe vs. Wade“When there is a state of judicial insecurity, as we are currently seeing in the United States, with each state deciding its own policy, that insecurity creates space for misinformation and fear.”
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The legal ambiguity around abortion frightens doctors who don’t want to risk lawsuits or jail time. Brazil’s health ministry issued a memo last month saying that “every abortion is a crime”, but that penalties can be waived in “specific cases”.
Doctors convicted of performing an illegal abortion face up to four years in prison. Many prefer to err on the side of caution, even though it may be detrimental to victims.
More than 17,000 children aged 10 to 14 in Brazil become pregnant each year, according to government figures. These mothers are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women over 20 and are also more likely to suffer from uterine ruptures, preeclampsia and anemia.
Cases of rape victims seeking legal abortions have become lightning rods for both sides of the abortion debate in Brazil.
In 2020, anti-abortion activists, including several politicians, gathered outside a hospital in northern Brazil to protest a legal abortion for another 10-year-old child. Authorities said the girl had been pregnant by her uncle, who repeatedly raped her. When her hospital in the state of Espírito Santo denied her an abortion, she was taken to a hospital in Recife, more than 1,000 miles away.
Anti-abortion activists leaked her name and the location of the hospital. They protested there while the procedure was being performed and called her doctor a murderer. The girl has since joined the witness protection program and changed her name and address.
But public opinion is changing. Polls show support for comprehensive abortion bans is falling, and abortion rights activists hope the country will join the ‘green wave’ of legalization that has swept through Mexico, Colombia and Argentina . A case pending in Brazil’s Supreme Court calls for the decriminalization of abortion up to 12 weeks gestation.
In the recent case, the girl, from the southern state of Santa Catarina, discovered she was 22 weeks pregnant in May. She had been seeking an abortion for 22 weeks and two days at a hospital in Florianópolis, the state capital.
Federal law guarantees rape victims a right to process at any stage of pregnancy. But the Brazilian Ministry of Health recommends that all abortions be performed before 22 weeks. The hospital, citing this advice, refused to perform the procedure without judicial authorization.
Neither the girl nor her hometown have been publicly identified. The hearing was held in Tijucas, outside Florianópolis, in May.
Ribeiro Zimmer, the judge, asked the child if she would agree to stay pregnant “two or three more weeks” to allow the fetus to grow. She also asked if the girl could feel the baby kicking and if her rapist would agree to give him up for adoption.
Ribeiro Zimmer turned to the victim’s mother.
“Regarding the little baby, do you understand that if we terminate the pregnancy, the baby is born and we have to wait for the baby to die?” she said falsely. “Can you understand that? That it is an immense cruelty? That the baby will be born and cry until it dies?
Throughout the hearing, the girl repeated that she did not want to continue the pregnancy and give birth. But she finally accepted Ribeiro Zimmer’s request to wait “a few more weeks” to increase the chances of the fetus surviving outside her womb for possible adoption.
In her decision, the judge equated abortion with homicide and ordered the girl to go to a shelter to prevent “the mother from carrying out any procedure resulting in the death of the baby”. She was separated from her family for over 40 days.
After the video was released, state authorities said the girl was removed from her home while prosecutors investigate whether she was raped by a family member – not for the safety of the fetus .
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While the girl waited at the shelter, the case divided Brazilians.
“The baby is SEVEN MONTHS pregnant regardless of how it was conceived or whether or not it is protected by law,” President Jair Bolsonaro tweeted. “It is inadmissible to speak of taking the life of this helpless being!”
Meanwhile, abortion rights activists took to the streets, demanding that the girl be released from the shelter and granted her an abortion. More than 300,000 women have signed a petition calling for the judge’s removal.
Brazil’s federal prosecutor’s office eventually ordered the hospital to perform the procedure, and on June 23, the girl, now 11, had an abortion. The office “lamented the sad occurrence” of the hearing and said it was investigating the conduct of the hospital and the judge. The Supreme Court has asked the Department of Health to review its recommendation on when abortions should be performed, which states that all abortions are illegal. Ribeiro Zimmer has been promoted to another position and is no longer on the case.
Juliana Cesario Alvim, a lawyer who has worked with the victim’s team for 10 years, hopes for change.
“If it is possible to see something positive in this tragedy, it is the mobilization it has aroused,” she said. Even if this case is resolved, we understand that we must continue to mobilize, to appeal to the international community, to increase visibility and pressure. The fight for the legalization of abortion is there.