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Letters & Op-Eds - 2012

The Southland Times (New Zealand)

Opposition to abortion not the stance of all Catholics

Jon O'Brien

4 September 2012

The move to bring abortion services to Southland Hospital is to be applauded. It is the right thing to do and serves the local community well. Sadly for the majority of Catholics who are pro choice, the Catholic hierarchy, through Bishop Colin Campbell of Dunedin, has been leading the opposition. In addressing his resistance to this development, I will follow his advice to 'think globally, act locally'.

Globally, examples abound of the tragedies that result when religious conservatives are given an elevated place in making decisions about public policy.

Bishop Campbell's opposition to the provision of a legal service may come from a deep conviction on his part. But there is room within the Catholic tradition for a wide variety of convictions - including on abortion - and it would be a mistake to let religious hardliners get between a woman and her healthcare professionals.

Around the world, we can see where that leads us.

In Ireland, women seeking abortions must travel substantial distances to have the procedure, sometimes cared for by those who don't speak their language, and then when they go home they often can't talk about it.

In Poland, women pay those who provide illegal abortion services upwards of US$95 million (NZ$118 million) a year.

In El Salvador, women who solicit abortions - and the doctors who provide them - risk substantial prison sentences.

In the Dominican Republic, a pregnant 16-year-old died last month after the chemotherapy for her acute leukaemia was delayed while medical officials debated whether they could provide treatment that might harm the foetus.

In each case, the situation is largely the result of political establishments acting at the behest of the Catholic hierarchy, which praises legislators for keeping religiously motivated bans in place.

Tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of women pay the price, in money, in loss of their freedom, and sometimes with their lives. Those acting locally to expand healthcare options are the ones truly in touch with the big picture of women's health.

As The Southland Times reported, the decision to offer abortion care at the hospital stemmed from the Abortion Supervisory Committee, which said in 2010 that it was 'concerned about the lack of local service for the women of Southland', forcing women to travel to Dunedin for the procedure.

Tending to the well-being of women who choose abortion, at home or abroad, is a position supported by Catholics and by the Catholic tradition.

Catholics believe that each individual must follow the dictates of her or his conscience. Catholics are driven by a commitment to social justice, to care for the least among us. This includes women facing decisions about unplanned pregnancies.

Bishop Campbell does not represent Catholic opinion. All over the world, Catholics have soundly rejected the hierarchy's attempts to ban contraception and abortion. Policymakers should certainly listen to all viewpoints when making decisions that affect those in their communities. This naturally includes religious voices.

But no extra weight should be accorded to religious leaders, just because they are religious - especially in cases where they claim to speak for all but represent only a small minority.

Decisions about moral issues such as abortion must be made by those most closely involved in the situation; policymakers and healthcare professionals should ensure the services are available for those who need them.

Catholics should stand up and support access to a full range of reproductive health services, and let their elected representatives know that the bishops do not speak for them.

This op-ed was originally published by The Southland Times.