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Letters & Op-Eds - 1990s

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The Vatican and Politics of Reproductive Health

Frances Kissling

May 1999

The leadership of the Roman Catholic Church is unable to acknowledge and trust that women will make good decisions about family planning, sterilization, and abortion.

One of the most complex and important questions facing policymakers is the role of religious institutions in the formulation of public policy and law. The question most frequently arises in relation to political activism by conservative religious groups and in the context of social policy related to what traditionally has been defined as the private sphere: family life, women's rights and roles in public life, sexuality, and reproduction. The advances that have been made in granting women legal protection against discrimination and in expanding the definition of individual rights to include making decisions about when, whether, and how to have children have produced a significant political and cultural backlash, particularly among religious conservatives.

These rights particularly have triggered differences of opinion between Catholics and official representatives of the Church. Why, one might ask, should non-Catholics be concerned with the views of the Roman Catholic Church on public policy issues? The Church, after all, is a religious institution. Nevertheless, a principle of democratic societies is religious freedom, and within this context, the Catholic Church has every right to put forward its views, values, and principles. Among Catholics, these views and values are taken very seriously, but what role do they play in the lives of non-Catholics or the political life of a country?

Since the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo (1994) and the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing (1995), it has become more obvious why the views of the Catholic establishment are an issue that should concern Catholics and non-Catholics alike. At these conferences, for perhaps the first time in the 20th century, the Church was seen clearly as a political player on issues of both international and national political significance. Women's rights, sexuality, reproductive health, and population policy finally were on the political radar screen, and the Vatican, along with conservative Muslims and the Christian Right, were energized by hopes of preserving a largely rejected, religiously based view of gender, sexuality, and reproduction.

These views, especially when they become public policy, rather than religious tenets, have been detrimental to women's well-being and to family, community, and the planet. They limit the rights of individual women to make moral decisions about their lives. When the Catholic Church puts forward a public policy position--whether it is to oppose all contraceptives, deny emergency contraception to women who have been raped and seek services at Catholic hospitals, work to make abortion illegal or see that it is unavailable, prevent sexuality education programs in public schools, or refuse to provide information about condoms as a preventive measure against the transmission of AIDS--it is not just Roman Catholics who are affected if policymakers enact such positions. Every woman, man, and child would be subject to these laws.

Take, for example, the case of Poland as an illustration of the effect the Church can have on women's lives and families. Poles who viewed it as a democratizing force now say, "We have exchanged a red dictatorship for a black one"--meaning the Church. Abortion has become illegal, while contraceptives are still less than universally available. In Poland, women are asked to have more children at the same time that day care is eliminated with Church approval. The Church has started a non-governmental organization called Pharmacists for Life. Those druggists who are opposed to contraception go into pharmacies around the country, buy up what meager stocks of contraceptives are available, and destroy them.

The Church also has a profound ability to influence public policy on development aid. In most countries, there is a Catholic agency working internationally to provide development assistance and humanitarian aid. These agencies largely are funded by government. In the U.S., for instance, Catholic Relief Services, with an annual budget of $290,000,000, receives about 77% of its resources from the Federal government. Is this a Catholic or a government agency?

Catholic agencies are recognized for the quality of their assistance. They often are at the forefront of humanitarian relief and the provision of food, shelter, and sanitation for people worldwide. However, when it comes to the question of women's rights, especially reproductive health, these agencies are not able to implement government policies requiring that aid recipients have access to family planning and the human right to make their own decisions about the number and spacing of their children.

This is not to suggest that the Roman Catholic Church--or any religious institution--should be prohibited from participating in the public life of nations, expressing its values, or even attempting to influence public policy. It is appropriate that religious voices be heard in all debates. There is much that religions have to offer in the development of policies that address values. It is, however, the responsibility of parliamentarians and other policymakers to evaluate the public policy positions put forward by the Church in the same way that they would evaluate public policy positions put forward by other non-governmental organizations, such as pro-choice, women's, and environmental groups.

This principle has been difficult for Church leaders. Catholic acceptance of the principle of the separation of church and state is very recent. Not until the Second Vatican Council (1966) was it accepted definitively in the "Declaration on Religious Liberty." That was preceded by more than 17 centuries of adamant belief that civil law must conform to the moral teachings of the Church. Thus, it is understandable that Church leaders still tend to believe that they occupy a sacred place in the policy process. It is less understandable when political leaders grant them that space and treat them as privileged players.

How can legislators avoid this? There are four criteria that could be used in evaluating public policy positions, whether the policy is suggested by a religious or any other group. The first criterion is who does this group represent, who is their constituency, and does that constituency agree with them on this issue? Survey research shows that many Catholics disagree with the positions taken by the bishops in relation to population and reproductive health. For example, it is estimated that each year in Brazil about 1,500,000 women have illegal abortions. Clearly. these women, most of whom are Catholic. do not agree with the bishops that abortion always is morally wrong and should be illegal. They disagree so strongly that these women risk their lives and health to have the abortions they believe they need.

About 70% of Mexican Catholics believe that you can he a "good Christian" and disagree with the Church on the question of abortion. Sixty-six percent of Polish Catholics believe that abortion should be legal in Poland. In the U.S., polls indicate that just 10-15% of Catholics share the bishops' belief that abortion should be illegal in all circumstances. Where contraception is available, Catholics use it in approximately the same numbers as do non-Catholics. More over, Catholics have been singularly un-persuaded that periodic abstinence the sole method of birth control permitted by the Vatican--has much to recommend it: fewer than five percent worldwide use it.

At least one U.S. study demonstrated that a strong majority of Catholics supported international family planning assistance to the developing world. On the controversial issue of public funding for abortions. Catholics look slightly more favorably on public funding than non-Catholics do. This possibly stems from a deep commitment among the Catholic people to the liberation theology principle of a "preferential option" for the poor and the marginalized and shows a desire to see that poor women are treated equally 10 those who are better off. These examples give some sense of the extent to which the bishops do not represent their own constituency when they seek legislation that will limit abortion or family planning.

The second criterion is are they honest and do they present accurate and valid facts? The American ethicist Ruth Macklin says ethics starts with good facts. One has look at what the bishops say about various aspects of public policy and see whether that they say indeed is true. For instance, in arguing against AIDS prevention programs that include information about the use of condoms, Catholic bishops have argued that condoms do not prevent the transmission of the disease. Some have gone so far as to say that condoms cause AIDS, by lulling people into believing they are completely protected.

Most disturbing were the positions the Vatican took at the Cairo and Beijing conferences. Its statements reflected an appalling lack of honesty. For instance, at the Cairo conference, bishops stressed that the final document would coerce women to accept sterilization. In fact, there is not one word in the Cairo document about sterilization. In the Beijing document, the Vatican continually stated that the word "mother" never was mentioned, and thus, that it is anti-family. Not only was the word "mother" there, but in many other forms and words, motherhood was referred to and extolled.

The third criterion is commitment to the common good--not the benefit of a specific group or religion. Do the policy suggestions respect the rights of all within society? Are the policy suggestions respectful of other religions, pluralism, and tolerance?

There is no doubt that, among all religions, the Roman Catholic Church has the most absolute position on contraception, sterilization, and abortion. Almost all religions have come to the point of understanding the use of family planning and contraception as an important element in a couple's exercise of responsibility. The Catholic Church does not even permit the use of contraception for Catholics who are married or in a lifelong monogamous relationship.

Given that the Roman Catholic Church has accepted both the separation of church and state and an obligation not to seek laws that would limit people of other faiths or no faith in the practice of their beliefs, it goes against its own teaching in putting forward a position on family planning that would limit the freedom of Anglicans, Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims. Islam has been characterized by some as the most conservative of religions, yet it has a very open attitude toward family planning and the use of contraception. A legislator who would work for laws that would limit these religions from exercising their freedom by legislating the Roman Catholic view would violate the value of tolerance at a very basic level.

The final criterion is utilitarian. Will the policy position work? Will abortions stop if they are illegal? Do women not have abortions in countries where they are illegal? Where no birth control, except for natural family planning, is available, are couples able to have and care for the number of children they choose? Many Catholics, including politicians, accept the Church's teaching that abortion almost always is morally wrong. Yet, as public policymakers, they seriously believe that the best way to reduce abortions is not to make abortion illegal, but, rather, to provide the social and economic infrastructure that would enable people to care for the children they have. These politicians especially support the widespread availability of a wide range of contraceptive methods.

Many Catholic theologians have been critical of the un-nuanced way in which Church leaders have misrepresented the history of its position on abortion. Few casual observers would not believe that it is the position of the Roman Catholic Church, definitively and dogmatically, that the fetus is a person from the moment of conception; that to have an abortion is to commit murder and never can be permitted, even to save the life of the woman. Yet, in a 1974 document, the Declaration on Procured Abortion, the Vatican stated that it does not know when the fetus becomes a person.

Those who are in the liberation tradition within Roman Catholicism say that, when they do not know and when the Church can not speak to them definitively on matters of fact, individuals are free to exercise personal conscience and make their own decisions on the issue before them. This position is countered by growing right-wing orthodoxy within Roman Catholicism, which basically says conscience is not applicable unless it agrees with the position taken by the hierarchy. That view disrespects the capacity of individuals to exercise conscience. It says that people who use their consciences basically are behaving as if they were in a cafeteria instead of in the way God intended. Liberal Catholics respond that God intended people to use the intellect given to them and to respect their capacity to make good moral decisions.

However, the Church refuses to trust the capacity of individual women to make good moral decisions. I think if one examines history, one will see that women in the most horrifying and terrible circumstances have brought children into the world and have cared for those youngsters as best they could--when abandoned, when in poverty, in any and all circumstances.

To think that the leadership of the Church is unable to acknowledge and trust that women will make good decisions about family planning, sterilization, and abortion speaks of the centrality of patriarchy to Roman Catholicism. That patriarchy not only seeks to control women, but to cut off all debate and dialogue on these questions. It says that these matters are settled forever and that none of us should waste our time talking about them because we already have been told what is right.

That is not acceptable to most Catholics. It certainly is not an acceptable way to craft public policy.

Ms. Kissling is president, Catholics for a Free Choice, Washington, DC

This article appeared in the May 1999 edition of USA Today (Society for the Advancement of Education).