Fifty years ago this week, the Catholic church released an encyclical – a papal letter to all bishops – that had a dramatically contradictory effect: it was both instantly disregarded by millions of women and had an enormous impact on the lives of the most vulnerable.
Humanae Vitae was published at a time when medical advances and upheavals in social attitudes were fuelling a revolution in sexual behaviour in much of the world. But the celibate men of the Vatican were determined to hold the line.
The document stated that artificial contraception was inherently wrong. “Each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life,” declared Pope Paul VI, slamming the door on a means of releasing women from a life of perpetual childbearing.
Within days, a group of American Catholic theologians had issued a statement saying that “spouses may responsibly decide according to their conscience that artificial contraception in some circumstances is permissible”. A year later, a survey found that 44% of Catholic women of childbearing age were using artificial contraception and, by 1974, 83% of US Catholics said they disagreed with the ban.
The encyclical was blamed for a fall in people attending mass and for damaging the authority of the papacy, particularly among younger Catholics. But it was a different picture in the developing world, especially in countries where the church exerted powerful influence on governments. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 214 million women of reproductive age in developing countries who want to avoid pregnancy do not have access to modern contraceptives; most are in sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia.
Millions of people have been exposed to HIV/Aids as a result of the church’s ban on condoms. In 2003, a senior Vatican figure declared that condoms did not protect against the HIV virus. The statement brought a sharp rebuke from the World Health Organisation, which said that condom use reduced the risk of HIV infection by 90% and saved millions of lives.
In 2015, Pope Francis dismayed health educators on a visit to Africa by sidestepping a question about whether condoms could be condoned in the fight against Aids, saying issues such as malnutrition, environmental exploitation and the lack of safe drinking water were more important.
Last year, Donald Trump – who counts conservative Christians among his most enthusiastic supporters – signed an executive order reversing global progress on contraception, family planning, unsustainable population growth and reproductive rights.
A few weeks ago, almost 500 Catholic priests in the UK signed a document supporting Humanae Vitae. When the encyclical was published, the statement said, many rejected its message. “Fifty years later, so much has unfolded in our society that has been to the detriment of human life and love. Many have come to appreciate again the wisdom of the church’s teaching.”
But dissenting voices are getting louder. Last week, Penny Mordaunt, the international development secretary, urged the church to ease its ban at a meeting at the Vatican, pointing out that 800 women and girls die every day because of pregnancy or childbirth complications.
Launching a report, Humanae Vitae and the Damage Done, Jon O’Brien of the US-based Catholics for Choice said: “Many Catholics choose to ignore the Vatican’s ban on birth control, but the world’s poorest people do not have that luxury. For half a century, the Catholic hierarchy has blocked funding and access to contraception for family planning and HIV/Aids prevention, with deadly impacts for the most vulnerable globally.”
This article was originally published by The Guardian.