A True Balancing Act Religion, reproduction and public policy


Jon O’Brien
Winter 2007-2008

The Catholic hierarchy has a long history of involving itself in debates over public policy. From advocating for the poor to opposing war and the death penalty, there is much good the church has done in this arena. However, in the area for which it is perhaps best known—debates over abortion, contraception and other “life issues”—the hierarchy’s advocacy has cost people their lives.

The church hierarchy’s opposition to contraception, abortion and the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS is well known, as is its opposition to IVF treatments for the infertile and embryonic stem-cell research. However, while even the bishops don’t always speak with one voice on these issues, it is clear that they do not represent the views and actions of all Catholics. The world over, Catholics think and act independently, practicing what is best for their families and themselves.

It is interesting to note that as abortion becomes more accepted throughout the world, and significant moves have been made to legalize abortion in regions (such as Latin America) that the Catholic hierarchy once considered to be its own backyard, the bishops are speaking out more and more vehemently. The recent outbreak of Catholic bishops attacking Prochoice Catholic politicians is a real sign that the Vatican may recognize that it is fighting a losing battle. After decades of the hierarchy’s being able to rely on Catholic politicians to bend the knee when bishops told them how to vote, times are changing. After a bishop in Mexico City threatened to excommunicate politicians who voted in favor of relaxing the city’s abortion laws, the pope himself endorsed that pronouncement at a press conference en route to Brazil. The pope’s spokesman was forced to backtrack not once but twice before Pope Benedict’s remarks on the matter were miraculously expunged from the record entirely. There are real signs of panic emanating from the Vatican which might just, and none too soon, be losing the public war with politicians.

The Catholic church sees it self as a major player in international and national politics and seems to see no contradiction in immersing itself in the workings of the United Nations and the European Union, as well as individual governments around the world. In fact, because of a quirk of history, the Vatican, through an entity called the Holy See, operates as a state at the United Nations, something even the late Pope John Paul II considered some what ridiculous. Speaking with Russian premier Vladimir Putin, he said, “Look out the window. What kind of state do I have here? You can see my whole state right from this window.”

The perennial question remains: What is the correct role for religion and religious institutions in the formulation of public policy and law? There is no easy or pat answer, but one can take a lead from church teachings.

According to the church’s own teachings, even in a predominantly Catholic country, laws need not adhere to official Catholic doctrine. The Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom (1966) reinforced the call for Catholics to respect the positions of people of other faiths. This is particularly significant given that the Catholic church’s position on reproductive matters, including abortion, is more conservative than those of other major faith groups. In addition, as noted, many Catholics do not support the position of the church on abortion.

It’s important to note, however that Vatican II saw the reversal of 17 centuries of church teachings to the contrary. Before the 1966 conference, the Catholic hierarchy believed that civil law must conform to the moral teachings of the church. Forty short years ago, all that changed, and Catholics were faced with statements such as the following:

“In spreading religious faith and in introducing religious practices everyone ought at all times to refrain from any manner of action which might seem to carry a hint of coercion or of a kind of persuasion that would be dishonorable or unworthy, especially when dealing with poor or uneducated people. Such a manner of action would have to be considered an abuse of one’s right and a violation of the right of others.”

“If, in view of peculiar circumstances obtaining among peoples, special civil recognition is given to one religious community in the constitutional order of society, it is at the same time imperative that the right of all citizens and religious communities to religious freedom should be recognized and made effective in practice.”

“Society has the right to defend itself against possible abuses committed on the pretext of freedom of religion. It is the special duty of government to provide this protection.”
However, it is apparent from the hierarchy’s activities over the past 20 years or so that old habits die hard.

For example, the Holy See has used its position at the UN to obstruct consensus on important documents relating to women’s and reproductive rights. During world conferences on women and population and development, the Holy See has led efforts opposing endorsement of such fundamental rights as access to family planning; safe abortion, even in countries where abortion is legal; and emergency contraception, even for women who have been raped as an act of war. These conferences have included the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, in Cairo; the 1995 World Summit for Social Development, in Copenhagen; and the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women, in Beijing. Another example of the Vatican’s role was its opposition, during the 1998 debate over setting up the International Criminal Court, to including “forced pregnancy” on a proposed list of war crimes. This negated attempts to criminalize rape as an act of war. The Vatican used its position at the UN in 1999 to condemn the provision of emergency contraception to women who had been raped during the conflict in Kosovo, and in 2001 to condemn the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS.

Because the UN operates by consensus in adopting documents such as programs of action at its conferences, voting entities, such as the Vatican, have a much stronger voice in proceedings than they would have otherwise.
This has meant that internationally important official documents of recent UN conferences on women and population and development are replete with “objections” by the Vatican to the majority consensus. For instance, the Holy See insisted on expressing reservations to the Beijing Platform for Action, the final report of the 1995 Beijing Conference on Women. It took issue with the concepts of “women’s right to control their sexuality” and “women’s right to control…their fertility,” asserting that these rights should be understood to refer only to “the responsible use of sexuality within marriage.” The Holy See also condemned “family planning” as “morally unacceptable” and dissociated itself with the consensus on the entire section on health, saying it gave “totally unbalanced attention to sexual and reproductive health.”

The Vatican’s views represent sectarian religious positions, not governmental public policy positions. This is exactly what the Vatican intends—despite what were adopted as church teachings in the Declaration on Religious Freedom.

The Vatican’s actions are not restricted to the increasingly rare UN conferences. The Holy See sends permanent observers to UN headquarters in New York and offices in Geneva and Vienna, as well as to numerous other UN and international organizations. One wonders just what impact this religious body seeks at the World Tourism Organization or the International Institute for the Unification of Private Law. After all, when the Vatican adopts a public policy position it is not just Roman Catholics who are affected if policy-makers enact such a position. Every woman, everyman and every child would be subject to these laws. And, because those who speak for the Vatican Usually wear clerical garb, they are granted far more deference that would a lay man or woman who expresses such extremist positions on reproductive health issues.

The debates over the proper role for religion in public policy are not new, nor will they be settled any time soon. Forty years ago, US president John F. Kennedy described his own determination to keep his religion and the demands of democracy and pluralism in appropriately distinct spheres: “I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me. Whatever issue may come before me as president if I should be elected—on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling, or any other subject—I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be in the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressure or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.”

This laudable statement of intent is one that most people should be able to endorse wholeheartedly. The church hierarchy misrepresents its own teachings and laws on abortion, ignoring the complexity and nuance in those teachings in an apparent attempt to hold the line against what it condemns as a permissive society. It ignores the reality that Catholic women, like women of other faiths and no faith, make measured and responsible decisions about their own reproductive options, decisions that meet the requirements of their own lives and that of their families. Catholic women use contraception and have abortions at the same rate as do other women and, in areas where the Catholic hierarchy has significant control over public policy, such as Latin America, die at the same rates due to illegal and unsafe abortions.

While it is clearly appropriate for religious voices to be present and heard in most if not all policy debates, it is important that they are not granted too much deference. Religion has a lot to offer the world, but all those involved need to be aware of the dangers of permitting religion too much influence. Continued advocacy by the Catholic hierarchy against basic reproductive health measures, including access to abortion and contraception, as well as condoms to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS, means that attempts to counteract the hierarchy’s power and present an alternative and authentic representation of true Catholic teachings remains a vital part of our project.

Jon O’Brien is president of Catholics for Choice.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2007-2008 edition of ConscienceMagazine.

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