How might Catholic advocates for reproductive choice respond to the Pope's visit?
The Pope is clearly no fan of sexual health and reproductive rights. The Vatican fights the distribution of condoms in the worlds HIV hotspots by disseminating the myth that condoms contain holes that facilitate the passing of the HIV virus. The Vatican's prohibition on abortion has not mellowed or modified with time, even though evidence is stark that introducing legalised abortion dramatically reduces maternal mortality (South Africa is a great case study for this). Not only has the Catholic Church not modified its position, but in Latin America it seems to be more active than ever in pressuring national legislatures and health departments to drop plans to liberalise abortion law and provision. Many of us stood aghast when a Brazilian Archbishop announced the excommunication of the mother of a pregnant 9 year old girl and the medical team who had provided an abortion for her following her rape by her step father. The girl was pregnant with twins and the doctors said that the abortion was necessary to save her life. The stepfather was not excommunicated from the church. The message is clear – abortion is a greater crime than the rape of a child and the child's life is trivial. In Nicaragua, under pressure from the Church, the Government passed legislation which makes abortion a crime even when it is carried out to save a woman’s life. Many women have died from preventable pregnancy-related conditions. The message is clear – a woman’s life is worth less than that of the tiniest fetus.
In the UK many people turning out in the streets to greet Pope Benedict will be free to do so because they are not tied down by a family of eight children, or worn out by serial pregnancy thanks to the wonders of modern contraception. In the UK practising Catholics have the luxury of choosing whether or not to follow the doctrine of the church on contraception and many don’t. Even some Catholic priests do not support the official teaching of the church. I recently heard of a woman who was maintaining celibacy up until marriage and told her Priest how anxious she was that she would become pregnant too soon and miss out on the pleasure of just being a married couple for a while. ‘use contraception until you’re ready for kids’ was the Priest’s response. If not most Priests, then certainly most Catholics in the UK are pragmatic. Not only do many use contraception, but they opt for abortion too in the event that contraception fails. For many this does not compromise their identity as Catholics one iota.
I celebrate the opportunity Catholic women have in Britain, Spain, Italy, the United States, and much of the economically developed world (there are several exceptions including Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and Poland), to make informed choices about their sexual and reproductive health. However, I believe that their silence is harming their sisters in Latin America and other Catholic regions and countries of the world. The choices women make about their faith and their bodies are a matter of personal conscience, but it is unconscionable that some women around the world die while others, who have and exercise freedom of choice, remain silent. The Pope needs to know that millions of men and women in his community refuse to practice his teachings on contraception and abortion because they are repressive, regressive and dangerous. Maybe next week Catholic men and women here could lead the way in letting him know.
Several organisations including the British Humanist Association and the National Secular Societyare organising a range of events to mark, and protest about, the Pope’s visit to the UK. Veteran human rights campaigner, Peter Tatchell, has made a documentary to be screened on Channel Four on Monday 13th September and a large protest demonstration is scheduled for Saturday 18th in Central London.