Women, Reproductive Rights and the Church

Library – Catholicism

Rosemary Radford Ruether
May 2006

Roman Catholic Christianity has a problem with women. This problem is deeply rooted in its history, in its assumptions about gender and sexuality. The foundational thinker of Latin Christianity, St. Augustine, in the late fourth and early fifth centuries established certain assumptions that still plague Catholicism. Although Augustine acknowledged that women possessed the image of God and were redeemable, he believed that as feminae or females they were created by God from the beginning to be under male subjugation. Women’s disproportionate guilt for the fall of humanity into sin, rooted in women’s disobedience to their subordination, meant that women could only be redeemed by accepting a redoubled subjugation to the male, even coercively so. For Augustine the female could never represent God. Maleness was the appropriate image of rationality and spirituality, while the feminine represented the body and the material world.

Augustine’s view of women was worsened by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century by the appropriation of Aristotle’s view of gender. For Aristotle and Aquinas, women were intrinsically inferior, being produced biologically as incomplete human beings. This meant that women could never represent normative humanity. For this reason Christ had to be a male in order to represent normative humanness. This also meant that women could not be ordained, since they could not represent Christ. Women were also excluded from leadership roles. They lacked autonomous humanness and thus had to be always under male authority.

In 1930 Pope Pius XI condemned women’s emancipation as undermining the divinely founded obedience of the wife to her husband and a false deflection from her true and sole role as mother and homemaker.

Augustine’s view of woman was complicated by his view of sex and reproduction. In the original state of innocence humans would have procreated without concupiscence or sexual pleasure. The fall into sin distorted human sexuality, making every sexual act concupiscent. This meant that every sexual act was objectively sinful, although this was forgiven or allowed within marriage for the sake of producing children. But sex even within marriage, if the reproductive effects of the sexual act were impeded, was sinful or “mere fornication.” This view made any form of birth control sinful and is the basis of Catholic teaching on birth control still today.

These views of women and sexuality have been challenged by modern feminism. In the late 19th and 20th centuries women began to struggle to win the vote, civil and political rights, higher education and access to professional employment. Catholicism was hostile to feminism, arguing in the 1920s against women’s suffrage. Women’s place was in the home, Catholic bishops argued, and their female nature would be debased by such rough masculine activities as voting. In 1930 Pope Pius XI condemned women’s emancipation as undermining the divinely founded obedience of the wife to her husband and a false deflection from her true and sole role as mother and homemaker. [1]

Once women won the vote, however, Catholic bishops in the US and elsewhere moved quickly to organize Catholic women to oppose liberalism, socialism and feminism. Officially recognized Catholic women’s groups, such as the National Council of Catholic Women, campaigned against birth control, divorce, child labor laws and the Equal Rights Amendment. The earlier view of women as inferior, incomplete human beings was replaced by complementarity. Women were defined as having a different nature from that of men. Women, it was claimed, were “naturally” more spiritual, moral and loving than men, but they maintained this feminine nature only by remaining in their traditional roles in the home.

In the pontificate of John XXIII there was some embrace of liberalism. Particularly in the encyclical Pacem in Terris it was said that women had the right to equal inclusion in all the rights of the human person in society and entrance into public life, work and politics. In what sounded like a surprising endorsement of feminism, the encyclical said, “Women are gaining an increasing awareness of their natural dignity. Far from being content with a purely passive role or allowing themselves to be regarded as a kind of instrument, they are demanding both in domestic and in public life the rights and duties which belong to them as human persons.” [2]

But the battle of the Catholic hierarchy with movements for women’s rights was far from over. In the late 1960s the renewed feminist movement added a demand for reproductive rights—for sex education, birth control and legal abortion—to its quest for equal education, employment and political participation. Some Catholic women also began to argue for women’s ordination. Thus traditional Catholic views on women’s gender roles and on sexuality and reproduction became joined.

This struggle was precipitated by changes in Protestant teachings on these subjects. In the Reformation, Protestants had accepted the traditional views that women could not be ordained, that their role was in the home and that sex was restricted to marriage. Birth control was not allowed. Some Protestants began to ordain women in the second half of the 19th century, but the most rapid change in this practice came in the 1960s, when most Protestants in Europe and the US began to ordain women. In 1976 American Episcopalians accepted women’s ordination.

In the late 19th century conservative Protestants had crusaded against contraception in the US, even making advocacy of birth control a crime. The struggle to legalize birth control and make it accessible was taken up by Margaret Sanger in the 1920s. By the 1930s, mainstream Protestantism began to change its teaching on birth control. In 1930 the Anglican churches, meeting at the Lambeth conference, tentatively endorsed it in some cases, and they more fully endorsed it in 1958. Catholicism responded by making opposition to artificial contraception the centerpiece of its teaching on marriage, although it conceded something to the demand for family planning by allowing the “rhythm method.”

By the 1960s criticism of the rhythm method was growing in Catholic circles as couples experienced its psychological stresses and frequent failure. Books criticizing the Catholic teaching on birth control were circulated at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). [3] Pope Paul VI, wishing to exclude this topic from the council, formed a separate Birth Control Commission in 1964. This commission included not just bishops, priests and theologians, but also demographers, doctors and lay representatives of the Catholic Family Movement. Pat and Patty Crowley, representatives of the USCFM, brought a collection of testimonies from their members on why the rhythm method was stressful and not conducive to good family life.

Many Catholic bishops, sensing that the birth control debate was lost, began to focus instead on the prohibition of abortion.

The result of the consultations of the commission from 1964 to 1967 was an overwhelming majority vote in favor of allowing any method of birth control that was medically safe, within marriage committed to having (some) children. A few dissenting theologians and bishops were horrified by this result and issued their own report, which they gave to the pope, urging him to accept it, rather than the official report. They argued that any change in the Church’s teaching would undermine the laity’s belief in the inerrancy of official Catholic teaching. [4]

In July 1968, Pope Paul VI issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae, reiterating the traditional Catholic teaching against birth control. However, the tacit consensus in favor of this teaching had been broken. Moral theologians and pastors openly dissented from it. Most Catholic laity decided they could ignore it. Catholic practice, especially in the US and Western Europe, began to approximate that of Protestants, 98% of US Catholic women having used contraceptives and 72% believing one could use them and still be a good Catholic.

Many Catholic bishops, sensing that the birth control debate was lost, began to focus instead on the prohibition of abortion. Abortion had been traditionally rejected by Catholic teachings, although earlier views did not define abortion as murder in the early months. Medieval scholasticism did not define the fetus as a full human person until the fourth month. This was based on the Aristotelian view that the soul was the form of the body, and so one could not have the presence of the human soul until the body had developed to its human physical form—a view still held by Islam. The Declaration of the Immaculate Conception in 1854 unsettled this view, since it suggested that Mary’s soul was present from the first moment of conception. But commentary at the time noted that this was a special privilege of Mary and did not apply to other conceptions. The 1974 Declaration on Procured Abortion said that there was no unanimous agreement on the moment of ensoulment, although abortion was forbidden in all circumstances. [5]

In 1972 abortion during the first two trimesters became legal in the United States, and this change also began to happen in many other countries, especially in Europe. Under the papacy of John Paul II (1978-2004), Catholicism launched a global crusade against abortion, birth control and redefinitions of the family that might include homosexual couples. Also rejected was any discussion of women’s ordination, with the papacy seeking to reinstate the 19th century view of gender complementarity. [6] This Vatican crusade was especially active in relation to United Nations conferences on population. The Vatican, through local bishops, also became very vigilant against any efforts within national governments to promote sexual education, family planning or the legalization of abortion.

The Vatican, through its status as a permanent observer at the United Nations, enjoys both voice and vote at such UN conferences. The Vatican sought to use its muscle at the Cairo conference to change any language on family, gender and sexuality it suspected of threatening its views of these subjects.

John Paul II’s preoccupation with these issues was aroused by the planning for and inauguration of the United Nations Conference on Population and Development, which opened in Cairo, Egypt, in 1994. The Program of Action being developed for this conference was influenced by international feminism of the First and Third worlds and sought to instill in UN thinking the view that women’s rights were human rights. This was also expressed by initiatives such as the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (a convention that the US government and the Vatican have declined to sign, although it has been accepted by 182 other countries, 90% of UN members).

The Program of Action sought to promote gender equality; the empowering of women through education, legal rights, economic opportunities and political participation; the elimination of violence against women; and the enabling of women to control their fertility. The Program of Action was notable in the family planning field in rejecting the earlier approach to population control that focused primarily on provision of family planning services and methods. Instead the program emphasized a holistic approach based on economic development and improvements in health and education, especially for women.

The pope and Vatican spokesmen saw this Program of Action as threatening Catholic teaching on gender and sexuality and became determined to change it, often misrepresenting it by claiming that it was promoting abortion as birth control, lax sexuality and homosexual marriages, none of which were actually mentioned in the document. The Vatican, through its status as a permanent observer at the United Nations, enjoys both voice and vote at such UN conferences. The Vatican sought to use its muscle at the Cairo conference to change any language on family, gender and sexuality it suspected of threatening its views of these subjects.

The Vatican sought to gather allies, managing to bring into its camp delegates from such Catholic countries as Guatemala, Nicaragua, Argentina and Malta, as well as the Muslim regimes of Libya and Iran. Since the passage of such documents at UN conferences works by consensus, the Vatican delegates and its few allies were able to virtually hold the conference hostage while they insisted on changes of wording on such issues as the affirmation of diverse forms of the family (which the document meant simply to affirm female-headed and extended forms of the family, but the Vatican insisted was a covert reference to gay marriage), family planning and legal and safe abortion. [7]

This Vatican crusade against birth control, abortion, changes in views of gender and acceptance of homosexuality has continued since Cairo, with the Vatican making itself present at the UN Conference on Women in Beijing, China, in September 1995, as well as the follow-up conferences on Cairo and Beijing (Cairo+5 and Cairo+10, Beijing+5 and Beijing+10). Continual statements by the Pope on these subjects, as well as mobilization of national episcopacies against any changes in state law on these subjects, continue to the present. There is also a new political alliance of the Vatican and the US government on these issues since 2000. During the 1990s the Clinton administration was generally on the progressive side of reproductive issues, but the US stance changed radically with the administration of George W. Bush, whose global policies on these issues parallel those of the Vatican.

I will give a few examples of the battles in this crusade, which is virtually worldwide, affecting North and South America, Asia, Africa and Europe—wherever Catholic power has a significant presence. The Vatican and Catholic bishops continue to oppose access to contraception throughout the world. This means opposing sex education curricula where contraception is discussed. It also entails opposition to state funding for family planning assistance and access to contraception at Catholic hospitals, and for insurance policies that cover contraceptive drugs and devices. For example, in April 1998 the New York and Connecticut Catholic conferences lobbied against US legislation that would require health insurance policies to cover contraception. [8]

The most heavy-handed effort to bar all use of contraception is under way in the Philippines in the spring of 2006, in response to a family planning and reproductive health bill presently being discussed in the Filipino parliament. Some 85% of Filipinos use or support methods of contraception. The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines has announced that it will deny baptism, communion, confirmation, weddings and burials to all who support or use contraception. This threat is seen as an effort to use methods of “shock and awe” to impress on Filipinos the seriousness of the sin of contraception.

Filipinos over the age of 15 are required to take an eight-week course on Catholic sexual teachings, after which they can buy a card showing they have completed the course and are eligible to receive the sacraments. Those without such a card have been denied communion and burial. Some priests obtained lists of women who had had IUDs inserted and instructed them to remove the devices. [9]

Another major area of controversy has to do with hospitals and clinics providing emergency contraception, which Catholic leaders have claimed works by causing abortion. This insistence is questionable. Emergency contraception, a high dose of birth control pills taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex, works either by preventing the release of an egg from the ovaries, blocking sperm from fertilizing an egg or preventing a fertilized egg from being implanted in the uterus. The first two occur before fertilization of an egg, while the third prevents a pregnancy, since a fertilized egg cannot develop into a fetus until it is implanted.

The Catholic campaign against emergency contraception has made it unavailable in most Catholic hospitals, even when such a hospital is the only one available in its area and the person requesting EC is not a Catholic. The most brutal example of Catholic clerical insensitivity to women is the church’s opposition to the distribution of EC to refugee women from Kosovo who had fled to camps after having been raped in the war. This view of the woman made pregnant by rape in war is also illustrated by the appeal in 1993 by Pope John Paul II to Bosnian Muslim women who had been raped to turn their rapes into acts of love by “accepting the enemy into them” and carrying their pregnancies to term. [10]

The use of condoms to prevent HIV/AIDS is another major area of controversy where Catholic power has a major international effect. Official Catholic teaching opposes any use of condoms even when they are being used not as a contraceptive, but to prevent the transmission of HIV. HIV/AIDS is a world pandemic, especially in Africa, where many of the millions dying yearly are young adults, which leaves children and the elderly in a highly vulnerable social situation. The encouragement of the use of condoms is a major means of halting the spread of the virus.

Some Catholic leaders have confused the discussion by claiming that condoms do not prevent and perhaps even help to spread AIDS. Thus Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop of Washington, DC, claimed in 2003 that “condoms often fail,” while Vatican spokesmen have claimed that HIV can pass through condoms. This misinformation has been strongly opposed by international family planning and anti-AIDs workers.

Some Catholic bishops have broken ranks and publicly supported the use of condoms to prevent AIDS, saying that this is necessary to prevent the transmission of death. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor in England; Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium; Fr. Juan Antonio Martinez Camino, secretary general of the Spanish Bishops Conference; and several other leading bishops in Latin America and Africa have spoken out on the acceptability of condoms to prevent AIDS. But Vatican leaders such as Cardinal Alfonzo Lopez Trujillo of the Pontifical Council for the Family have stood firm in condemning such revisionist thinking. Cardinal Wilfred Napier—head of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Southern Africa, an area experiencing an overwhelming pandemic of AIDS—publicly publicly declared that “there is no medical evidence that condoms prevent the transmission of AIDS,” [11] a statement at odds with all scientific data. But the criticism of the policy has had an effect, and in May 2006 the Vatican will release a statement allowing the use of condoms to prevent AIDS, but only between married couples.

Some Catholic bishops have broken ranks and publicly supported the use of condoms to prevent AIDS, saying that this is necessary to prevent the transmission of death.

The Vatican and Catholic bishops have particularly campaigned against any legalization of abortion for any reason, defining human life as beginning with the fertilization of the ovum. Although abortion is illegal in many countries, most allow some exceptions. These can include cases of rape and incest and those where the life of the woman is in danger or the fetus is severely malformed. But the Catholic anti-abortion view rejects such exceptions. There have been several cases in Latin America where young girls (13 in one case, 10 in another) were impregnated by rape, and sought legal abortion, but Catholic anti-abortion groups pressured them to carry the fetuses to term. These cases have excited criticism of the church by those defending legal abortion.

The most extreme example of the criminalization of abortion in all cases without exception is currently in the country of El Salvador. For abortion foes El Salvador is seen as the vanguard of what they hope to achieve in other countries, including the United States. At the end of the civil war in El Salvador in 1992, El Salvador’s laws on abortion were similar to those of other Latin American countries, banning abortion except in cases of rape, serious fetal malformation and grave risk to a woman’s life. The FMLN, former guerrillas transformed into a legal political party, sought to liberalize the laws to include threats to women’s mental health.

In 1995 Pope John Paul II appointed Fernando Sáenz Lacalle, an outspoken conservative and member of the right wing Catholic group, Opus Dei, as archbishop of San Salvador. Conservative Catholics introduced a bill into the Legislative Assembly in 1997 to ban abortion in all circumstances. The new archbishop campaigned actively for the bill. Opposition to it was squashed by well-organized Catholic conservative groups. Despite opposition from the FMLN, which had only a minority of the votes, the bill was passed. When it was up for a second vote in January 1999, Pope John Paul II visited the country and appealed for its passage. Again Catholic conservatives campaigned energetically, with a barrage of radio ads and petitions. Fearing that they would be overwhelmed in the coming elections, the FMLN members withdrew their opposition and the bill became the law of the land.

Abortion was thus defined in El Salvador as murder from the first moment of conception. The abortion provider faces a prison term of 6-12 years, those who help her face 2-5 years, and the woman herself faces 2-8 years for abortion in the first trimester and 30-50 years if the abortion occurs after the first trimester. Under these laws numerous women who had abortions have been imprisoned. One was imprisoned for 30 years for abortion of an 18-week fetus, even though she has three small children who are dependent on her as their sole parent. Most of those who are prosecuted are poor women. The rich continue to have options to fly to Miami or visit a well-paid private doctor. But the poor resort to back-alley abortionists, who often leave them with severe injuries. If they go to a hospital with such injuries, they are taken into custody and examined for evidence of abortion. Women in El Salvador have fallen under a reign of terror in which they and their doctors and friends are at risk of prosecution if there is any indication that they have sought abortion. [12]

These Catholic crusades against women’s reproductive health have generated some rebellion among Catholics worldwide. Leading this rebellion is the organization Catholics for a Free Choice, based in Washington, D.C., with itsCatólicas por el Derecho a Decidir partner organizations in eight Latin American countries and Spain, and another partner group in Canada. CFFC-CDD groups have confronted the Vatican and its allies at the UN conferences and work actively to decriminalize abortion and make contraception and sex education available in their countries. They also have under way a major world campaign, Condoms for Life, to make condoms available for AIDS prevention. [13]

CFFC-CDD runs an international campaign, See Change, to challenge the Vatican’s status in the UN. [14] This status is based on the historic legacy of the Papal States in Italy. The papacy lost these states in the unification of Italy in 1870, but 190-acre Vatican City was recognized as a sovereign entity under a treaty with Mussolini in 1929. This status allowed the Vatican in 1964 to become a nonmember state permanent observer at the UN, where it exercises both voice and vote in UN special conferences. But the Vatican at the UN represents not Vatican City but the Holy See, the worldwide government of the Catholic Church. CFFC-CDD argues that the Holy See is not a territorial state and thus the Vatican’s status is illegitimate. The Holy See is properly an NGO, not a state, and its presence at the UN or other international meetings should be as an NGO, like other church organizations, such as the World Council of Churches.

This See Change campaign has gained the support of some 700 organizations from 80 countries. Although the papal presence was reconfirmed by the UN members July 1, 2004, the See Change campaign still believes it is important to educate the public about the Holy See’s status and influence on global political policies. CFFC-CDD argues that the Vatican should participate in world politics as a religion and not as a state. Vatican power in global policies on women and reproductive health affects the laws of states, not just laws of churches, which call for personal acts of conscience. States’ laws can prevent people of all religions and those of no religion from having access to condoms for AIDS prevention, emergency contraception in hospitals, legal and safe abortions or information on family planning. Right-wing Protestants and Muslims are potent allies of the Vatican in the movements against women’s reproductive rights worldwide. But others who wish to maintain such rights are objecting to such public coercive power by religion and are fighting back.


  1. Pius XI, Casti Connubii (1930)
  2. John XXIII, Pacem in Terris (1963), section 41
  3. Thomas D. Roberts, SJ, Introduction. Contraception and Holiness: The Catholic Predicament (New York: Herder and Herder, 1964)
  4. Robert McClory, Turning Point: The Inside Story of the Papal Birth Control Commission (New York: Crossroads, 1995)
  5. See Dan Dombrowski and Robert Deltete, A Brief Liberal Catholic Defense of Abortion (Champaign IL: University of Illinois Press, 2000).
  6. See particularly John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae: For an effort to a “new” feminism according to the papal view of gender complementarity, see Michelle M. Schumacher, ed. Women in Christ: Toward a New Feminism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004)
  7. See Denise Shannon, “All Roads Led to Cairo: The Vatican and the UN Conference on Population and Development,” Conscience (Winter 1994/5), p. 3-10
  8. CFFC, ”Barring the Way: The Vatican’s Global Campaign to Block Implementation of the Cairo Programme of Action,” Conscience (Winter 1998/9), 22-27.
  9. “In Catholic Circles,” Conscience (summer, 2006).
  10. Frances Kissling, “A Callous and Coercive Policy” Conscience (summer, 1999), 12-14.
  11. “The Church and Condoms,” Conscience (summer, 2005), 7.
  12. See Jack Hitt, “Pro-life Nation,” The New York Times Magazine (April 9, 2006), 41-47, 62. 72, 74.
  13. See Condoms4Life website; also article on Condoms4Life’s presence at World Youth Day, Cologne, Germany, August 16-21: Conscience (winter, 2005/6), 6-7.
  14. See www.seechange.org


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