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Child is the pawn in Brazil abortion battle

An 11-year-old girl has become a test case for opponents of abortion in Brazil. A wave of outrage has put her and her father under huge pressure. Phil Davison, Latin America correspondent, reports.

Being a minor, she is referred to in the media only as M. But everyone in Brazil knows her surname, Oliveira, that she was raped last year when she was 10 and that she intends to have a baby in the spring.

A waif of a girl with braided hair, M has become a reluctant figurehead for the anti-abortion lobby in Brazil, even in the rest of South America. Under Brazilian law, she could have aborted her foetus for either of two reasons - because of the rape and because of the dangers she faces in giving birth at the age of 11. But Catholic priests and other anti-abortionists persuaded her father against it.

M, whose face in profile is widely known around the nation, usually half- hidden by her favourite plastic doll, said she was raped last August by a 38-year-old farm labourer called Roberto Celeste in the town of Sapucaia, 180 miles north of Rio de Janeiro. He has since disappeared.

She said she hid her secret from her father, vegetable-farmer Walter Oliveira, for as long as she could, saying she was suffering from a stomach upset or cramps.

When she began vomiting and her condition became obvious in November, her father opted for an abortion. He asked local judge Luiz Mangabeira Cardoso for permission, M was taken to a Rio hospital for health checks and the judge ruled the abortion could go ahead. But a day before it was due last December, after news of her case received nationwide publicity and just after her 11th birthday, anti-abortionists marched on Sapucaia and called for the judge to reverse his decision.

"Killing is not the way to teach people respect for life," they shouted. Catholic priest Father Luiz Carlos Lodi de la Cruz, citing statements made in Rio two months earlier by Pope John Paul, told Mr Oliveira and M that abortion was "an abominable crime, the shame of humanity".

Another priest showed father and daughter a videotape of the US-produced film The Silent Scream, which includes graphic images of a foetus being aborted. "What crime has that unborn child committed?" he asked.

A leading Brazilian obstetrician travelled to Sapucaia and told Mr Oliveira that letting his daughter give birth would not endanger he life. The Oliveiras were convinced.

"I feared that giving birth would kill her. She is still so small," Mr Oliveira told a reporter from the Miami Herald in Sapucaia last week.

"Her uterus can't be fit to bear a child. What really makes you crazy is one person saying one thing and another saying another. It was hard to know what was right, except that 95 people were saying one thing and only five were saying something else."

"I'm happy now," said M. "It was my father who wanted me to have the abortion. I didn't want to have it."

Mr Oliveira, who earns only pounds 15 a week from growing tomatoes and aubergines, was at first unsure how he was going to pay for the medical care his daughter now needs. But national fame brought gifts and cash donations from Catholic, evangelical and pro-life groups and the media.

M will be one of tens of thousands of children to give birth in Brazil this year. Sociologists predict the figure will be higher than ever this year because of the influence of the Pope's visit and his hard-hitting attack on "the forces of evil" - divorce and abortion.

A 1940 Brazilian law authorises abortion in cases of rape or a threat to the mother's life. But in reality, as the pro-choice camp has lost ground in recent years and the anti-abortionists have kept up the pressure, many state hospitals turn away such women even if they show up with written court authorisation.

Congress is debating a new Bill which would oblige the state hospitals to perform such special case abortions but conservative Catholic congressman have so far blocked it.