Ten-year-old's pregnancy sparks Paraguay abortion debate

Asuncion (AFP) - A 10-year-old girl who was raped by her stepfather and is now five months pregnant has become the focal point of a wrenching debate over abortion and child abuse in this conservative Catholic country.

Both houses of Paraguay's Congress discussed her case this week, with opposition leftist parties calling for the decriminalization of abortion, which is banned except when the mother's life is in danger.

Humanitarian organizations insist the girl's life is in danger, citing her four-foot-six-inch (1.39 meter) frame and weight of only 75 pounds (34 kilos).

The government, the courts, the Catholic Church and other civic groups have been adamant, however, that her pregnancy not be terminated, in part because of its advanced state.

"The pregnancy will not be interrupted," said Health Minister Antonio Barrios, the former personal physician of Paraguay's President Horacio Cartes. "We've already completely ruled out abortion."

The girl, whose name has been withheld, is under medical care in a special ward for pregnant adolescents at Asuncion's Red Cross Hospital, where she is the youngest of six girls who are either expecting or have already given birth.

Her doctors say she is doing well, and her pregnancy is progressing normally.

"She has no pain or complications," said Dolores Castellanos, the doctor who heads the special section and who has been tasked by the health ministry with supervising the girl's care.

- 'Tiny' and talkative -

Castellanos described the girl as "tiny," talkative and friendly, and said she has gained weight as her pregnancy proceeds on a diet of proteins, iron and liquids.

But she acknowledged that her high blood pressure and low body weight pose risks, "as with all the others who conceive precociously."

"We've had experience with this before. Last year a 10-year-old girl who conceived as a nine-year-old gave birth. Her step-grandfather raped her. She did well," said Castellanos.

Indeed the case has cast a harsh light on the prevalence of adolescent pregnancies in this largely rural South American country.

UNICEF recently reported that two girls a day between the ages of 10 and 14 give birth in Paraguay.

Official statistics say that 20,000 adolescents 16 or older gave birth in 2014, most of them single mothers who will later be unable to continue their education.

- Mother under arrest -

In this case, the girl's condition was not discovered until April 21 when her mother brought her to a public health clinic, believing she had a tumor.

The girl said she had been sexually abused by her stepfather, 42-year-old Gilberto Benitez Zarate.

He is now at large and her mother, who worked in a school cafeteria, was arrested after authorities concluded that she had enabled her daughter's abuse.

"This girl was always in the hands of that man because the woman would leave to go to work," said prosecutor Monalisa Munoz. "She was at his mercy."

The girl herself has been shielded from the swirling national debate.

"She's not allowed to watch television," said a source at the hospital.

Adolescent pregnancies are not only a problem in Paraguay.

UNICEF says that Latin America and the Caribbean have the second highest rate of adolescent pregnancies in the world.

In Uruguay, a similar debate has been sparked by the case of an 11-year-old who is four months pregnant and does not want an abortion. Uruguay limits abortion to the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, or the first 14 weeks in cases of rape.