Letters & Op-Eds - 2008
To be truly pro-life, the Vatican should lift its contraception ban
29 July 2008
RITE AND REASON: Pope Paul VI's decision to uphold the ban continues to affect millions of families, writes Jon O'Brien
SOME YEARS ago a mother of six wrote to this newspaper recounting the effects the Catholic Church ban on artificial contraceptives was having on her life.
"You have a two-month-old on one side of the bed, a 16-month-old on the other, and a two-and-a-half-year-old in another room. Beside you is your husband that you love and who has been using his 'self-control' for at least four months. Verbal communication is of necessity cut down to a minimum and cosy chats together are out.
"So you take your chance and spend the next few weeks (longer if you are breast-feeding) worrying yourself sick and wondering if you are pregnant again. This is married life.
"What they never told me is what to do; the don'ts I am familiar with. 'Use your self control,' I was told.
"'Put your husband in another bedroom,' my gynaecologist said. Now that's all very well for a week, a month or two months - but forever?"
Helen wrote her letter because the Vatican banned all artificial methods of contraception and, at that time, the Irish government always bent its knee to the church.
That changed but the church's ban has not. It continues to have a significant impact on the lives of women and their families around the world, Catholic and non-Catholic alike.
Last Friday was the 40th anniversary of that fateful day in 1968 when Pope Paul VI slammed the door on the hopes and needs of Catholics around the world, confirming a total ban on modern family planning methods.
When Pope John XXIII decided to open a discussion on contraception many believed the teaching would change. But then he removed the Birth Control Commission from the main debates of the Second Vatican Council in an apparent attempt to control its findings. His successor, Pope Paul VI, expanded the commission to include five (married) women as part of its contingent of 34 lay members.
Despite the pope's attempts to stack it with conservatives and retain the status quo, the commission took its job seriously, studying the history of Catholic teachings on contraception carefully. It found that many of the scientific and theological underpinnings of the ban were faulty or outdated. But conservative members of the commission held firm.
One illustrative exchange shows that they recognised the potential impact of their deliberations. When Father Marcelino Zalba, a church expert on "family limitation," asked the commission in undisguised horror what would happen "with the millions we have sent to hell" if the teaching on contraception "was not valid". Commission member Patty Crowley shot back: "Father Zalba, do you really believe God has carried out all your orders?"
However, the hearts and minds of even the conservative bishops were swayed by the impassioned testimonials from married couples who explained the realities of attempting a healthy sex life without the aid of contraception. The vast majority of the commission voted to change the teaching and permit contraception.
Sadly, when faced with the proposal, the pope took a political decision to ignore the findings and instead adopted a minority report of the few members who opposed change. The impact of that fateful decision continues.
The ban has been particularly disastrous in the developing world where Catholic hierarchies hold significant sway over many national family planning policies, especially in Latin America and the Philippines, so obstructing good public health policies on family planning and HIV prevention.
The world is a very different place today to what it was in 1968. Then as now, Catholics can, in good conscience, make decisions that go against church teachings.
Catholics the world over support the use of contraception, and those who can access it use it. It would enable hundreds of thousands if not millions more families to make informed decisions about their futures if the church lifted this ban - not to mention the impact it would have on HIV prevention.
It is one thing to talk the talk on promoting a culture of life - and the bishops do that very well. It is quite another to respect the reality of people's lives. It would be truly compassionate and just for the church to change this fatally flawed teaching. It would be the truly pro-life thing to do.
Jon O'Brien is the Irish-born president of Catholics for Choice. He worked with the Irish Family Planning Association for several years
This article originally appeared in the 29 July 2008 edition of the Irish Times.