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Letters & Op-Eds - 1990s

minneapolis star tribune

A Question of Faith

Frances Kissling

12 June 1999


Trust women—even rape victims—to make childbearing decisions Bishop should acknowledge complexity of choice in Kosovo

In a May 12 Counterpoint article in the Star Tribune, Archbishop Harry J. Flynn attempted to justify Vatican opposition to the provision of emergency Contraception to women refugees who have been raped in the Kosovar crisis. His argument was far from convincing.

He attempts to answer the criticism that the Vatican shrugs at women refugees by pointing out the many admirable efforts the Vatican makes on the part of all refugees. This, however, demonstrates the blind spot most church leaders have when it comes to women.

This issue is not about all refugees; it is about women. And with Vatican leadership, the Roman Catholic Church is, despite Flynn's protestations, among the harshest and most punishing of religions when it comes to understanding and respecting women's rights and needs.

No more graphic example of that lack of understanding can be found than the message Pope John Paul sent to Bosnian Muslim women who had been raped in that conflict. The pope urged them to turn their rape into an act of love by "accepting" the enemy into them and making him "flesh of their own flesh" by carrying their pregnancies to term.

Flynn characterizes the distribution of the morning-after pill in Kosovo as "massive." If it were indeed necessary to provide massive distribution of morning-after pills, he should be worried about and decrying the massive rape of women in that conflict. And, rather than giving raped women inaccurate information about what constitutes a pregnancy or characterizing aid workers as perpetrators of violence for offering voluntary emergency contraception, Flynn would do better if he respected both the conscience and moral capacity of women—even women who have been raped.

No one is suggesting, as the archbishop intimates, that emergency contraception will "minimize the horror" of rape. There is no quick or medical cure for the devastation experienced by women who have been raped. Rather, for those raped women who choose to take it, this "after-the-fact" contraceptive method merely saves them from becoming pregnant with their rapist's progeny. To ask—no, to force—a woman raped in war, exiled and with an uncertain future to continue such a pregnancy is callous beyond belief.

Seemingly at the heart of the Vatican's opposition to emergency contraception are its continued claims in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary that emergency contraception causes an abortion. For the record, such experts as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists say that pregnancy starts when a fertilized ovum implants in the lining of die uterus, about six days after fertilization.

Emergency contraception, which is simply two double doses of regular birth control pills taken 12 hours apart, works best immediately after unprotected sex and is effective only up to 72 hours after coitus. It is not prescribed for women who are already pregnant. It works by either preventing the release of an egg from the ovaries, blocking sperm from fertilizing an egg, or preventing implantation.

While it is true that in some instances, emergency contraception will act on fertilized, but not yet implanted ova, there are few among us who would consider the primitive, microscopic cells present at that stage the moral equivalent of the raped woman.

Lost in the Vatican's defense of this position is the fact that it still opposes contraception of any kind. Church officials have failed to convince Catholics that contraceptive use even for married couples is immoral, and Catholics now use contraception as much as the rest of the population. But church authorities have turned to the public policy arena to stem the availability of contraception.

In the United States, the bishops are vocal and consistent opponents (of both domestic and international family planning programs as well as legislation that would require health insurance plans to cover prescription contraceptives. At the United Nations, Vatican officials use the church's official governmental status—which no other religion has—to block programs and policies that would make voluntary contraception more accessible in the poorest parts of the world.

Now it pushes that untenable position into the Kosovar conflict, where rape is a brutal weapon of systematic ethnic hatred. For these raped women, claims that the Vatican is acting "lovingly," as the archbishop put it, by working to deny them the choice of emergency contraception would be laughably ironic if its consequences were not so dreadful.

- Frances Kissling, Washington, D.C. President, Catholics for a Free Choice.

This letter appeared in the 12 June 1999 edition of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.