Statement to the Committee on the Status of Women 57: Governments must immediately address the deficiencies in their provision of sexual and reproductive healthcare services

An Oral Statement to the Committee on the Status of Women 57 from Catholics for Choice

Around the world, Catholics are on the front lines when it comes to advocating for the elimination of violence against women and girls, as well as providing critical physical and mental healthcare services to those affected by violence. It is regrettable, however, that some policies promoted and implemented by the hierarchy of our church block the provision of urgently needed sexual and reproductive healthcare services to women and girls who have suffered from violence, and to women and girls who are at risk of contracting HIV/AIDS. It is further regrettable that in many instances governments that have expressed their commitment to eradicating violence against women and girls, and to providing victims of such violence with the services needed to recover from these traumatic experiences, permit the Catholic church hierarchy and its affiliated organizations to deny women and girls access to needed sexual and reproductive healthcare services.

Public healthcare providers are the first line of defense for women and girls who have suffered violence, but if a victim should happen to seek help from a Catholic hospital, clinic or healthcare organization, she will find her options for sexual and reproductive healthcare severely limited. Due to the directives of the Catholic hierarchy, women and girls who suffer sexual violence are often denied emergency contraception to prevent an unwanted pregnancy. Those who do become pregnant are denied the ability to safely terminate the pregnancy at Catholic institutions. The denial of these basic reproductive healthcare services is one example of the unfair application of the most conservative interpretations of Catholic teachings on entire populations, with devastating effects for women and girls, up to and including the prospect of suffering further violence. As the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women has stated, “women and girls who are forced to continue with unwanted pregnancies commonly face re-victimization by family and society. In cases of pregnancies resulting from rape or incest, women and girls often resort to unsafe and clandestine abortion practices, sometimes with fatal consequences.”

The health and well-being of women and girls are further placed at risk by the official policy of the Catholic hierarchy to refuse to allow the use of condoms to help prevent the spread of HIV & AIDS. Catholic officials have repeatedly spread misinformation about the safety and efficacy of condoms in the fight against HIV, and Catholic healthcare workers are officially prohibited from distributing condoms or encouraging their use. Of course many do so anyway, but the fact remains that the official policy for one-quarter of the HIV & AIDS services provided globally is to prohibit and condemn condom use. As a direct result, women and girls are placed at greater risk for contracting the virus, a fact which is evidenced by the tremendous rise in new infections among women during recent years, particularly among married, monogamous women.

Finally, the current practice by the Catholic hierarchy to exclusively privilege the conscience of healthcare providers who oppose the provision of critical emergency sexual and reproductive healthcare services leaves many women and girls without access. As a result of this policy, the Catholic hierarchy argues that medical personnel who disagree with the provision of certain services, particularly abortion care and emergency contraception, should be permitted to refuse to provide these services. In contrast to the relatively small number of people who comprise the hierarchy of our church, many Catholics globally believe that privileging the personal beliefs of a healthcare provider over the urgent health needs of a woman or girl who has suffered sexual violence is cruel and that doing so contradicts Catholic teaching regarding respect for the individual conscience and compassion for others. Furthermore, providers who would willingly perform services prohibited by the Vatican are restricted from following the dictates of their own conscience by policies that do not allow them to provide these services. States continue the violation of the human rights of women and girls who are victims of violence when they allow hospitals and clinics to refuse to provide comprehensive reproductive healthcare services in favor of protecting the religious beliefs of some medical personnel who may object to certain procedures without also guaranteeing patient access to these services.

Access to comprehensive reproductive and sexual healthcare is vital to the prevention and elimination of violence against women and girls. It is the responsibility of governments to enact and implement the appropriate social, legal and policy frameworks that make it possible for women and girls to be healthy and enjoy their human rights. Catholics for Choice calls on governments to immediately address the deficiencies in their provision of sexual and reproductive healthcare services and to reject any and all influence that limits access to these life-saving, critically needed services.

Catholics for Choice