AFP - A senior Vatican cleric defended Saturday the excommunication of the mother and doctors of a nine-year-old girl who had an abortion in Brazil after being raped.
Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, head of the Roman Catholic Church's Congregation for Bishops, told the daily La Stampa that the twins the girl had been carrying had a right to live.
"It is a sad case but the real problem is that the twins conceived were two innocent persons, who had the right to live and could not be eliminated," he said.
Re, who also heads the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, added, "Life must always be protected, the attack on the Brazilian Church is unjustified."
The row was triggered by the termination on Wednesday of twin foetuses carried by a nine-year-old allegedly raped by her stepfather in the Brazilian state of Pernambuco.
The regional archbishop, Jose Cardoso Sobrinho, pronounced excommunication for the mother for authorising the operation and doctors who carried it out for fear that the slim girl would not survive carrying the foetuses to term.
"God's law is above any human law. So when a human law ... is contrary to God's law, this human law has no value," Cardoso said Thursday.
He also said the accused stepfather would not be expelled from the Church.
Although the man allegedly committed "a heinous crime ... the abortion -- the elimination of an innocent life -- was more serious," he said.
Battista Re agreed, saying, "Excommunication for those who carried out the abortion is just," as a pregnancy termination always meant ending an innocent life.
The case has sparked fierce debate in Brazil, where abortion is illegal except in cases of rape or if the woman's health is in danger.
On Friday President Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva hit out at Sobrinho's decision, saying, "As a Christian and a Catholic, I deeply regret that a bishop of the Catholic Church has such a conservative attitude."
"The doctors did what had to be done: save the life of a girl of nine years old," he said, adding that "in this case, the medical profession was more right than the Church."
One of the doctors involved in the abortion, Rivaldo Albuquerque, told Globo television that he would keep going to mass, regardless of the archbishop's order.
"The people want a Church full of forgiveness, love and mercy," he said.
Health Minister Jose Gomes Temporao on Thursday also slammed the archbishop.
"Two things strike me: the assault on the girl and the position of this bishop, which is truly lamentable," he said.
The girl, who was not identified because she is a minor, was last week found to be four months' pregnant after being taken to hospital suffering stomach pains.
Officials said she told them she had suffered sexual abuse by her stepfather since the age of six.
Police said the 23-year-old stepfather also allegedly sexually abused the girl's physically handicapped 14-year-old sister.
He was arrested a week ago and is being kept in protective custody. If convicted, he faces up to 15 years in prison.
The website of the news group Globo reported that another girl, aged 11, had been found to be seven months pregnant following alleged sexual abuse at the hands of her adoptive father.
The girl has said she does not intend to seek an abortion, according to reports.