31 March 2009

The Catholic Church and Abortion in Timor-Leste

A translation of an article published in Tetum in the East Timor newspaper Suara Timor Lorosa'e just before the Council of Ministers decided to exclude the exceptions to unlawful abortion from the draft criminal code.

"Thank you Mama, because you have allowed me to live!" (A note to MJ Lucia Lobato and Provedor Sebastiao D. Ximenes on abortion)

By Martinho G. da Silva Gusmao*

“The infant is brought to consciousness of himself only by love, by the smile of his mother. In that encounter, the horizon of all unlimited being opens itself for him, revealing four things to him: (1) that he is one in love with the mother, even in being other than his mother, therefore all being is one [unum]; (2) that that love is good, therefore all Being is good [bonum]; (3) that that love is true, therefore all Being is true[verum]; and (4) that that love evokes joy, therefore all Being is beautiful [pulchrum]” (Hans Urs von Balthazar, My Work: In Retrospect, 11).

In the past few days Timor-Leste has faced a tremendous “legal” and “moral” earthquake related to abortion. The AMP government plans to promulgate the penal code in April. This is a huge step for the current government. The situation become a little tense when article 144 of the penal code mentions “interruption of pregnancy” and article 142, “non-punishable interruption of pregnancy”. In article 144 everyone agrees that abortion is crime. Those who perform abortion can be punished between 2, 3 and 8 years.

The problem arose when article 144 introduced an “exception” for cases where the mother’s life is in danger, or when the mother is underage (younger than 16). But the women’s movement (and some civil society organisations), including the PDHJ (Ombudsman for Human Rights and Justice) also want to include cases of “incest” (where the father has sexual relations with his own daughter) and “rape”. The PDHJ, Sebastião D. Ximenes even had the courage to declare on TVTL (12 March 2009) that he defends abortion in order to respect others’ (the mothers) “life” and their right to privacy.

It is interesting to note from the TVTL debate that there are two humanist philosophical positions from two sides: (1) from the Provedor’s (PDHJ), it is referred to as the existentialist humanist, which is very close to atheism; and (2) from the MJ (Minister of Justice), which is called personalised-humanism (humanista-personalista). I will cover them in the coming section.

Now, the question of abortion becomes even more complicated when the Catholic Church firmly declare that abortion is a (mortal) sin while at the same time considers it as a “serious crime”. Some members of the civil society were annoyed by the Church’s position and were almost saying that the Catholic Church cannot “force” its position; they even said that the Government cannot listen only to the Catholic Church. There must be a consensus onm the issue of abortion between the Government, the Catholic Church and the Civil Society Organisations (OSC).

After having listened to all that debate I was hoping that the moderator (Paula Rodrigues) would pose this question: is abortion a woman’s problem or a mother’s problem? As some of the proponents for abortion are “women” but sometimes they are not “mothers”. This question may sound like a joke. But I raised this question as it has a profound impact on a philosophical question. With this question I would like to say that abortion is not an issue of the Catholic Church but of the human being; it’s not a religious and moral question only but it is also a metaphysical question: “the mystery of the human being”! Just to add, in Indonesia the practice of abortion is absolutely a “crime” and are punishable with imprisonment. Everyone knows that Indonesia is the biggest Islamic nation in the world. So the majority of the Islamic population is in favour of the criminalisation of abortion. The whole of the religious world which has a strong tradition is against abortion. The reason is simple: “dom da vida” is a sacred thing. Destroying a life is a sin as much as destroying the environment.

Once I had a book titled “Love Beyond Life”. In one section the writer (a doctor and a psychiatrist) talked about a therapy which he performed on a woman who had once performed abortion. From the psychological viewpoint he said that the woman who had performed abortion suffered from trauma for the rest of her life. The woman felt that she has contributed to homicide and the trauma stayed with her throughout her life. Even when she saw other women hold their babies, she would suffer immensely, she felt afraid and trembled at what she had done. She suffers from a feeling of culpability for a very long time. The word “culpability” means that the woman has condemned herself and thinks of herself as a criminal. This psychologist said that cases of abortion can be resolved in a day but its consequences can extend for the rest of life. What this doctor tried to do was to give counseling on love, hope and mercy. But this doctor said that the wound continues to remain in the woman’s heart.

As a student in Rome (Italy), I use my summer holidays working for a parish church. In my work I would listen to anyone who would want to open up (I also took this opportunity to practice my Italian). Once I attended to a woman (she’s 59) who came to me to open up about her abortion experience which she performed 31 years ago. For more than 2 hours I listened to her laments, sadness and trauma. She said that the “image” of the baby whom she lost never left her. I only listened to her grievances, not confession. Because within the Catholic Church, abortions is confessional only to the Bishop or elderly priests (who have been granted special license from the Bishop). As a young priest I listened to many cases like this in lectures. But I never came across it directly. So I could not offer any “guidance”. But this experience left me with a big sign that abortion is not a simple issue.

From the book and this experience in Italy it became possible for me to better understand what MJ Lucia Lobato was referring to in TVTL (12/03/09). She said more or less, “… as a mother, when I am pregnant, … I had a special experience which … very personal, … there was an intimate relationship. I cannot explain, … because this is like a blessing”. I understood these words as an expression from the personal-humanist philosophy. MJ expressed the concept of “mother” which went beyond the “physical” question: a woman who is pregnant. The pregnant woman is an “external” problem. But the word “mother” indicates towards an “intimacy”. Therefore a pregnant woman is at a moment referred to as “maternity”! She is no longer a “subjectivity”, but an “inter-subjectivity” … with an intimate and sentimental relationship.

Sister Lucy’s (i.e. Lucia Lobato) statements show to be a mother is not solely a “physical” (woman) question, but it is also a “metaphysical” question. Philosophically Sister Lucy points towards “actus essendi”. The word “metaphysics” means “beyond the physical”; to step beyond the physical reality. That before we see a child “body”, we already had a relationship with a “life”. Therefore, like it or not sister Lucy’s statements is necessarily follows with an important thought: before we see the real body, we have already found “life”. Mothers (such as sister Lucy) do not feel or think that inside their belly there is a “raw flesh” but a “life”. Life must be an “essence”: trunk and roots. The body is actus existendi, meaning, it has already found its material or physical. That’s why in the Christian philosophy it says, “anima rationalis est forma in homine, qua corpus est corpus”. This is to say that: our rational spirit (the essence of life) takes its human form. Them man is the reincarnated spirit. The human body is the space where the human spirit lives. The human essence is “intimacy” which reveals itself through everyday activity in the physical life (corporeality). Because “intimacy” does not have its own space, so it needs a “material” (physical) one in order to reveal itself.

Then we can say that the problem of abortion is not just a problem of the Catholic Church’s doctrine (or Islamic). It is not the “woman’s” problem. In my opinion the word “woman” refers to a physical identity. It can happen a woman is not a mother. But when a woman becomes a mother she finds herself a very beautiful word, “maternity”. The word “maternity” points to an abstract experience (or metaphysical), not physical. Because, “mother” points to a life because there is an experience of “intimacy” with that life that’s growing inside her. If we can say it, “carrying a child” is a “blessing” from a life which wants to mark its presence in the world. Abortion is no longer about the taking out the “raw flesh”, but it becomes the taking of a “life”. That’s why when article 142 is passed, then “woman’s” politics can win. But a “mother’s” intimacy would loose its sense.


According to the Provedor and Civil Society Organisations (CSO), “incest” and “rape” can also apply for abortion. But this position shows that the activists have fallen into a serious crime against humanity. If the Government and the State accept this argument then along with the CSOs, they are legitimating a serious violence: turning the woman and the baby into victims! This means a victim on top of another victim.

But the basis and the justification provided by the PDHJ are extremely terrible in my view. The Provedor’s position – consciously or not – came from a philosophical basis which in times past gave raise to transpersonal totalitarians. These philosophies were adopted from Lenin-Stalin (communism), Adolf Hitler (Nazism) and Benito Mussolini (fascism). When Hitler undertook “damnatio memoriae” (brain washing), Mussolini was making “fascii di combatimento”.

Let’s examine the 2 arguments put forward by the PDHJ which for me is dramatically horrible. First Mr. Sebastião D. Ximenes says that “the embryo has the potential to be alive as a person … the mother is a person.” On the other hand Mr. Provedor said that we have “duty” and “right”. Estate/Government can enforce someone’s “duty” but they cannot enforce someone’s right. With this 2 basis the Provedor is sustaining the idea that abortion can be performed against “incest” and “rape”.

My dear Mr. Provedor, in the classic thought, “potentia” cannot be separated from “actus”. If the embryo is a potential within the mother’s womb, then the “potentia” is someone’s life. Its consequence, the embryo indicates “actus” (evolving) as a person. No one can be of the idea that “the seed” inside the mother’s womb came from an animal. It’s impossible. Also when the embryo is inside the mother’s womb it is not just any “raw flesh” but a “life”. Just as MJ Lucia Lobato said in relation to the personal and the intimacy. Those with a good sense will recognise that the mother is hot having a relationship and an intimacy with a “raw flesh” but with a life. That’s why I said “potentia” cannot be separated from “actus”. Provedor’s position to separate “potentia” from “actus” is not normal (abnormal). What is normal is when we say that embryonic “potentia” is evolving within “actus” in the human flesh. The Provedor is making a philosophical falsification to justify his political position in relation to “abortion”. The Provedor is taking a political option in the name of human rights. I contest this position.

On the other hand it is a grave disaster the Provedor is making when he argues that we can force “duty”, but we cannot force “right”. Even the Provedor says that not even the State or the law can force it! In my opinion, the Provedor is introducing a “political belief” from the liberal-extremists who want to impose the “homo homini lupus” system (we are wild dogs (wolf) amongst people). In this system, “might” is right. Who is mightiest, he wins; if he wins then he is right. Then once again Nietzsche says that humans should not believe in the “power of logic” (law and morals, religion and the state) but in “logic of power”. In the case of abortion the Provedor’s logic is moving towards a direction which is very “frightening”: because the woman has the right and freedom to life, she can take away another life that is fragile and innocent. In other words, the human rights which the Provedor defends is the right of the mighty, the cream of the crop … not those of the small.

First of all, “incest” occurs when a father commits sexual act against his own daughter. The person who committed the crime is the father, not the daughter. The daughter is the “victim”. It becomes horrible when the women’s movement attempt to “inject” a dreadful idea to support the “victim” to commit a “crime” to “take away life” which is on its way to be alive. Then the young woman changes from “victim” to a “criminal”. She has committed serious crime because she has taken away another “life”. The consequences will become evermore grave: the young woman is living with trauma because she became a victim of her father; at the same time she will live with the stigma of a murderer against another life.

This argument can also be applied to “sexual violence”. The woman is not the criminal but the victim. We can’t help her to get her freedom. But we must show her how she can get her “revenge” by finishing off with the “new seed” sown by the criminal. The women’s movement could not manage to help a fellow woman but they open the way for “revenge”. I am not defending the “rapist”. But I am pointing out that “perhaps the excuse for abortion is not genuine for the female victim, but it’s based on hatred against the rapist”. This is more serious because we are firing up the woman’s hatred and revenge!!! And then under the condition of mental instability we are justifying this action to take away a baby’s life. And then, to cover this up we wrap it around sweet words like “protecting the women’s right”.

To be honest, I am not convinced with the logic of abortion for incest and rape. The Provedor’s (and women’s or the civil society’s movement) pro-abortionist position for “incest” and “rape” represent a philosophical tendency through an atheistic humanist drama. I am not accusing that the Provedor, Mr. Sebastião does not believe in God (the Marxist phillospher ERns Bloch says “in order to become a good atheist, one must have a strong belief in Christianity; and to become a good Christian one must face a strong atheist). Nor am I accusing the women’s movement of atheism. What I am pointing out is a “philosophical tendency”: whether we are conscious or not, the Provedor and our sisters are founding themselves in a philosophy à la Friedrich Nietzsche. For Nietzsche, humans must strive to become a Superman species … “Man is something that should be overcome … Man is a rope, tied between beast and Superman” (cfr., Thus Spike Zarathustra: 41. 43).

According to Nietzsche, to be Superman we must first declare that “God is dead!”; because “we have killed him”. In other words, Nietzsche wanted to say that “life” is in the human hand, we are Superman. “Superman” comes from the “best seed”, an aristocratic and intellectual caste. In order to be Superman, we must kill God. If God continues to exist, then we won’t have personal freedom. In Nietzsche’s thought, God is only for the moral slaves (the slavery of morality), those who constantly speak of “love”, “peace”, solidarity, fraternity, etc. The Superman must show its “power”, domination, expansion, etc. That’s why the philosopher J. P. Sartre declared that “if God exists then human being is nothing”.

Nietzche’s other statements also opens up a new perspective. He said, “we believe ourselves to be the causal agents in the act of willing; we at least thought we were there catching causality in the act. … causality had, on the basis of will, been firmly established as a given fact, as empiricism”.

The result of philosophies similar to Nietzsche’s have given raise to dictatorships like Adolph Hitler, Mao Tze Tung, Mussolinin, Lenin, Stalin, etc. For them, “the human race” and “the human dignity” is measured against “superman” or “the top seed” or the “strongest seed”. When we find a weak “seed”, we must destroy it.

The Nietzschean philosophy has inspired the modern technology to select between the “good seed” and the “bad seed”, including the human seed. But what is the most interesting in philosophy is the use of formal rationalist and logical arguments. We have removed the human feeling. The Provedor and the sisters want to defend a woman’s “life” and her “personal freedom”, but thei are only considering the “best seed” or the “top seed”, not the small and the poor. Not the innocent. They are not discussing the “mothers’” intimacy and maternity.


In the discussion the women’s movement asked: “Why should the Catholic Church be anti-abortionist if someone has a strong reason?” First of all the Catholic Church defends the Commandements in the Old Testament which says “Thou shall not kill” (Exodus 20:12; Deuteronomi 5:17). In the New Testamnet, Jesus Christ went a step beyond to say that “… anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment” (Matthew 5:21-22). The logic which the Catholic Church shows is this: to end a “life” is a consequence of an awful mind, “hatred”, “grudge” and “revenge”. To take away a “life” does not come up spontaneously. To murder or take away a “life” one must have thoughts, make plans and finally take the action. There is nobody who wakes up and grabs a machete and slice another person. There is a priori: hatred, grudge and revenge.

This idea becomes the basis for reflection for the document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), called Donum vitae (the blessing of life), specially in relation to the abortion issue. The Catholic Church holds firmly that the origin of life is sacred because there involves “blessings” from God. Therefore “before you are formed inside your mother’s womb, I already knew you; before you came out of the maternal womb, I have already blessed you” (Jeremiah 1:5; Job 10:8-12; Psalm 22:10-11). Thus it is also said, “My substance was not hid from thee when I was made in secret and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth” (Psalm 139:15). (Original Portuguese: “Nada da minha substância escapava quando era formado no silêncio, tecido nas entranhas da vida humana”).

The Bible has shown that the “human life” is a silent creation, under the cover of mistery. Right from the Old Testament the people have shown a devotion: life is sacred. But modern science, just like the Old Testament: cannot determine with an adequate manner the hour/minute that “life” begins. Adolf Portamann, a bilogist who won a Noble for Science in 1979 wrote in a book titled “Biology and Spirit” that when we cannot see the beauty in nature, we cannot see “life”. He conducted his research thorugh the theory of evolution and concluded that human evolution is full of mystery and beauty and is full of creative freedom. True! A number of scientists do not want to mention God by name but they are only brave enough to say that “there must be The Greatest Designer”.

Because when we see the mustery and beauty of a new creature, Donum vitae (introduction: 5), it says that “… no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human beign”. The Cathoilic Church defends this fact: abortion is a mortal sin. This position comes from Christianity’s roots. When the Church talks about “sin” there can be no “exception”. So the Bishops and the Priests cannot declare that abortion is sinful with exceptions within it. A sin is a sin. There is no exception for sins.

If we look carefully at the argment from the Civil Society (in particular the women’s movement), the basis for the legalisation of abortion is “antipathy” for the fetus. Cases such as “incest” and “sexual violence” point out that the sisters’ arguments are based on “hatred”, “grudge” and “revenge” against the criminals. We can be hateful, have grudge or avenge against the criminal, I agree. But we cannot use this reason to turn the victom (the woman) in to a criminal to take away another “life” which has no voice. Whatever it is, the Catholic Church must always be “the voice of the voiceless people”.


We go back to the question: is abortion a mother’s conflict or is it a woman’s problem? From the above explanation I think that the woman’s problem is merely a “physical” question. This is much easier to perform abortion because what is inside the womb is only a “raw flesh”. But when abortion is performed the mother’s conflict will araise: the conflict of intimacy and maternity. This is a “metaphysical” conflict. This type of conflict, to borrow from Sister Lucy’s words, can never find an explanation. In my opinion, article 142 can bring victory to the women’s politics. But I don’t believe that it will bring any benefit to the “mothers”.

On the other hand the idea about “abortion” comes from the lifestyle of women lib’s which today became a new trend in the world. But they are successful in their political campaign to convince the life of others. Be that as it may, the women lib’s cannot attract the mothers’ personal emotional sentiment. In Timor-Leste we can see it very clearly that the women’s movement is stronger in the political articulation but less os in the cultural contextualisation. I think that if the sisters carried out a “socialisation" campaign on this penal code, you will find a lot of resistance from the mothers in the grassroots community. They will listen but they will remain silent! People would think that “silence means to agree”. But in Timor-Leste, “silence” means to “resist” until “the last drop of blood”.

My experience from Italy has shown that abortion is not a “modern” and “traditional” issue. It is a humanity’s question. For the developed nations there can be exeptions in the legal abortion. When the “woman” is young, they can have abortion. But they cannot resolve the issue of depression and trauma of frustration and culpability which a mother will suffer for the rest of her life. That’s why the comparison with with developed countries will not guarantee that the issue of abortion can be resolved. This comparison is always false. Because the issue of “mother” is always too complicated and personal comparing with the women’s lifestyle.

Therefore, in the end abortion is not only a question for the Catholic Church or religious ethics. Abortion is a qiuestion for the “human being” as humans continue to progress in “actus essendi” and “actus existendi”. We have life first and then we have the “body”. Life is designed through the parent’s “profound love”. This love found “incarnation” when a baby finds a body within the mother’s womb and finds personality when it gives “the first smile” to the world.

There is no conflict between the Catholic Church and the State/Government and the Civil Society. The moderator’s provocation was good! But it was not deep enough. The problem simply showed up because these entities stood in different positions. The church stands on “sensu fidei” (belief and values which it must preach). The State/Government must show its “political belief” (belief and values which it defends). The Civil Society wants to show off its humanist philosophy. The situation became complicated when this “political belief” and the humanist philosophy are changing according to trends, according to contexts, according to political and economic tendencies. While politicians and the civil society can “change their skins” for their beliefs, the Catholic Church continues to hold on to its belief and values which has stood firmly for 2009 years. Like “women” who can change herself according to the latest trend, the Catholic Church as “Mother” and the “mothers” in the Catholic Church never change their love to their child. For a “mother”, the child will always show “unum” (niqueness), “bonum” (goodness), “verum” (truthfulness) and “pulchrum” (beauty).

When I finished this article my heart was filled with joy because my mother never performed abortion and I can be alive. I can exist today, live and perform the good things in my life. If my mother had performed abortion today I would not have existed, would not be alive to do the good and the bad things. Thank you very much mother!

*) Director of CJP (Justice and Peace Commission) Baucau Diocese, lecturer in fundamental ethics, socio-politcal philosophy and contemporary atheism at the Seminario Maior S. Pedro and S. Paulo, Dili. Also teaches politics at UNTL.

Image added by ETLJB.



Unknown said...

o halo duni Martinho............

Anonymous said...

MArtinho so kaer teoria Filosofia ema nia nia mak barak, ninia ideia rasik la iha....needuni nia so hatene 'COPY PASTE' deit...ideia rasik la iha......sa tan iha pratika sira maka pratika buat balu la los ona...