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Letters & Op-Eds - 1990s

religion news service

The Catholic Church's Achilles' Heel

Frances Kissling

8 November 1999

Holding women and children hostage to the church's repudiated positions on reproductive matters is an epic failure of compassion.

Just after the Supreme Court recognized a woman's right to choose abortion twenty-six years ago, the Pregnancy Aid Center opened in College Park, Maryland, a Washington, DC, suburb, to help women who didn't want abortions but for whom having a baby would entail considerable financial hardship. Since then, the crisis pregnancy center has been providing medical and social services for low-income, uninsured women who want to carry their pregnancies to term. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington wholeheartedly supported the center, and many parishes and the Knights of Columbus gave it substantial annual donations.

But then it became known that the center had in recent years provided contraceptive services and counseling to the women who came there. At that point, the archdiocese counseled priests and parishes to "end financial and other support" for the center because, as a spokesperson told the Washington Post, it no longer shares the church's views on sexuality and the dignity of human life."

It is a case that makes for bitter irony: the church's devotion to its ban on contraception-a teaching that has been roundly rejected by the overwhelming majority of American Catholics-has caused it to stop giving much needed care to women who choose not to have abortions.

Parishes have stopped making donations, the archdiocesan prolife office removed the center from its list of church-approved crisis pregnancy centers, and Catholic groups such as the St. Vincent de Paul Society rejected funding requests. The grand knight of the local Knights of Columbus said the organization stopped its monthly food deliveries, "lest we Catholic men be put in a position 'of supporting contraception,' which we do not, of course." All because the center's operators decided that helping women avoid unintended pregnancies through voluntary access to contraception would be a good idea.

"When I go into a woman's house and she has five children and the refrigerator has just a half-gallon of milk in it," the center's beleaguered Catholic director told the Post, "I'm pretty hard-pressed to say to her, if she doesn't want any more children, that we can't help her."

While donations are severely curtailed, the almost 3,000 women who come every year to the center continue to need its services; the prenatal, postnatal and general health care, plus the baby clothes, cribs, diapers and baby food. The center is one of only two nongovernment clinics that accepts noninsured clients in Prince George's County, Maryland, where the infant mortality rate is 58 percent higher than the national average.

Less than half of the center's clients (about 40 percent) are Catholic, but this distinction is lost on church officials. Even they contend, if your religion says contraception can be a moral decision-and all major religions except Catholicism do-you should not be able to even hear about contraceptive options.

In an added twist, the archdiocese claims that one of the contraceptive choices offered by the center, Depo Provera, actually causes abortions. This view is rejected by medical authorities, who point out that Depo Provera's ability to prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus stops a pregnancy before it starts. Since there is no pregnancy, there is no abortion.

This is of course not the first time that church officials have used needy women as a political football in their efforts to push their views on reproductive health. It was only a few years ago that the Vatican urged parishes and church-sanctioned institutions to stop supporting UNICEF, the United Nations' children's fund, in part because of UNICEF's endorsement of a manual dealing with women's needs in emergency situations and refugee camps. Produced at the height of the Bosnian conflict, in which rape was used as an instrument of war, the manual recommends that women who have been raped have access to emergency post-coital contraception.

In both the UNICEF and Pregnancy Aid Center cases, the church's decision to withhold support contradicts its mission to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, comfort the sick, and shelter the homeless. Holding women and children hostage to its repudiated positions on reproductive matters is an epic failure of compassion. It rips to tatters any claim the church makes that its positions on reproductive matters have women's best interests at heart.

This article courtesy of Religion News Service.