For Frances, It’s Personal

Not only does Frances Kissling think the unthinkable, she says it loud and clear.

By Nafis Sadik
Spring 2007

One of the bitter disappointments of the papacy of John Paul II was that the Roman Catholic Church
abdicated its responsibility toward women, and in particular toward women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights. For a quarter of a century, the church resolutely opposed all moves toward women’s empowerment and gender equality, on the international stage and at the national level.

In richer countries, women have to some extent been able to avoid the worst effects of doctrines expounded in encyclicals such as Humanae Vitae, which banned all forms of contraception, and the extension of the doctrine to the use of condoms for HIV/AIDS prevention. Eight Catholic women out of 10 in the United States, for example, continue to use contraception despite the ban. Others simply leave the church.

In many poorer countries, however, the church has been more influential. Poor women are still without modern reproductive health services. Some countries have enacted punitive laws against
women who have abortions. Others have had to abandon policies to educate girls and women about their human right to sexual health, or what they can do to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancy and HIV/AIDS.

The impact on individual lives has been catastrophic, keeping maternal mortality high and families larger than women would have wanted. Mothers love all their children, but love does not provide food, clothing, shelter or education. Motherly love cannot make up for the tragedy of a schoolgirl’s unwanted pregnancy, or for a child bride’s fistula. Repressive laws do not prevent abortion; they simply drive it underground and make it more dangerous for women. Ignorance about sexuality does
not prevent teenage sex; it simply prevents teenagers making informed decisions  about sex. Campaigning against condoms does not encourage men to be more sexually responsible; it merely condemns powerless women to die a lingering death from AIDS.

Until 1978, it was relatively easy for organizations interested in women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights to work with the church. We collaborated on programs to counsel engaged couples
about family life; we worked together on maternal and child health projects. We agreed that we had a common purpose to save lives, improve health, attack poverty and promote development, and we agreed to disagree about contraceptive technology.

With the passing of Pope Paul VI, everything became much harder. The cordial working atmosphere vanished almost overnight and has never returned. Instead, we found distrust, covert opposition and open hostility, not only to contraception but to all aspects of women’s empowerment and gender equality.

“In the highly charged atmosphere in Cairo, Frances’ energy, diplomacy and humor were like oil on what could have been very troubled waters. The final consensus owes a lot to her.”

For me, as a scientist and medical professional committed to saving and improving the lives of women, the church’s policy has been hard to understand. For an international civil servant trying to promote consensus among nations on broad issues of population and development, it has been frustrating, to
say the least.

I was very happy to find in Frances Kissling an ally who not only shared my passion for sexual and reproductive health and rights but had a passion of her own, for her church and its mission. I understood quite early in our acquaintance that for her, the church’s failure was a personal matter. After the hope of Vatican II, the opening offered by the papacy of Paul VI, the sudden closing of the church’s mind to any ideas of women’s empowerment or equality was a bitter blow. How could a woman with a mind of her own live in a church that rejected the ideas that gave meaning to her existence?

Many women have faced this dilemma over the last 30 years, but very few have responded as Frances did: with a lifelong determination to resist and, if possible, to change the reactionary wave that has swept over the church. She has been extraordinarily influential, using her intellect, humor and broad humanity to excellent effect. She has made it clear that her stand is less doctrinal than humanitarian. Her concern is for ordinary women and men trying their best to conduct lives of Christian dignity in difficult circumstances.

Two examples of her contribution immediately come to mind. The first occurred at the International Conference on Population and Development in 1994. The conference was an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. When I joined the United Nations in 1970, population was so controversial that it was barely possible to speak the words “family planning” aloud at an international meeting. The World Population Plan of Action, adopted in 1974, contained only three references to women in the whole of its voluminous text. In 1994, after 20 years’ work, we saw the possibility of global consensus on sexual and reproductive health and rights, women’s empowerment and gender equality, and the relationship of those goals to social and economic development, all in a context of national sovereignty and international responsibility.

As 179 countries met in Cairo, the success of the conference was balanced on a knife-edge. A great deal, maybe the whole deal, depended on how countries interpreted concepts such as reproductive
health and gender equality. To reduce the possibility of misunderstanding, the secretariat ensured that carefully translated draft texts were available in all the official languages—only to discover that unauthorized translations were circulating that put some key concepts in a prejudicial light by, for example, interpreting “sexual health” in such a way as to imply a right to promiscuity. Powerful forces were clearly working against the mood of consensus that so many were trying so hard to build.

In this highly charged atmosphere, Frances’ energy, diplomacy and humor were like oil on what could have been very troubled waters. She has many friends in many places, and she ensured that they all knew what the stakes were, and responded accordingly. The final consensus—one that has lasted and become stronger in the intervening years—owes a lot to her, and to the many
other NGO leaders who brought the voices of ordinary people to the conference floor.

The second example is The “See Change” Campaign at the United Nations. The campaign showed all the audacity, intelligence, organization and wit for which Frances is renowned. The campaign pointed out, among other things, that the Holy See was the only religious organization represented at the
United Nations at the level of an observer mission; and that it was rather ironic for a state whose citizens were about 1,000 single, celibate males not only to participate in shaping international approaches to issues intimately concerned with sexual and reproductive health, but also to do so
on an equal basis with, say, India. On that occasion, as on so many others, Frances and her dedicated staff were not only thinking the unthinkable, but saying it loud and clear. Along with many others who wish the United Nations well, I am most grateful to her.

Dr. Nafis Sadik is a special adviser of the United Nations secretary general and serves as his special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Asia. She was the executive director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), with the rank of undersecretary general, from 1987 through 2000. On her appointment in 1987, she became the first woman to head one of the United Nations’ major voluntarily funded programs.

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