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Bush Administration and Vatican Out of Step with Catholics on Sexual Behavior and Reproductive Health

March 22, 2004

As world leaders meet to discuss population and development, new report reveals global Catholic public opinion diverges on abortion, contraception, and condoms from Vatican and US.

NEW YORK —Policy makers and nongovernmental organizations are right now gathering at the UN for the Commission on Population and Development meeting during the tenth anniversary of the Cairo Programme of Action. Cario’s Programme of Action pledged to ensure increased access worldwide to family planning, emergency contraception and condoms to prevent AIDS and was adopted by consensus by more than 160 countries. Today the world waits to see if the Vatican and the United States will once again isolate themselves from the majority opinions of Catholics and UN member states to oppose sensible policies on family planning, reproductive health and condom use to prevent HIV/AIDS.

A new report released today on the latest public opinion data for the one billion Catholics worldwide reveals that the majority of Catholics around the world support abortion rights and increased access to contraception and condoms. Catholics also largely oppose the church using the political stage as a platform for its moral stance. Catholics for A Free Choice (CFFC) released A World View: Catholic Attitudes on Sexual Behavior & Reproductive Health.

“It’s appalling that the United States, once a leader in providing family planning services worldwide, now seeks to sabotage the landmark UN agreement that pledged support for life saving reproductive healthcare,” stated Frances Kissling, president of CFFC. “When it comes to opposing women’s reproductive health and rights, the Vatican and the Bush administration are out of sync with Catholics and non-Catholics around the world. From Kentucky to Kenya, from Boston to Bogotá, Catholics do not accept or follow the positions the Vatican advocates in policy making arenas. While the Bush administration marches in lock step with the Vatican on issue after issue relating to the health and survival of millions of women in developing countries, the data reveal that Catholics around the world are opposed to the Bush administration’s positions on reproductive health and rights.”

The report’s findings are consistent with the reaffirmation of the 1994 ICPD Programme of Action at the recent Economic Commission of Latin America and the Caribbean Ad Hoc Session Committee on Population and Development in Santiago, Chile on March 10-11. The country delegations attending that meeting agreed by a margin of 38 to 1 to issue a formal declaration of continued support of the past decade of progress on the Programme of Action. The Bush administration stood alone in opposition to governmental consensus favoring sensible reproductive health policy.

“Who do the Bush administration and the Vatican speak for?” asked Kissling. “They clearly do not listen to or respect the world governments who seek consensus on sensible reproductive health policies, nor do they represent the views of Catholics worldwide. As they continue to isolate themselves from the world, poor women and children continue to suffer.”

The report cites the fact that there are approximately 1 billion Catholics across the globe, comprising approximately 17 percent of the total population. Regarding abortion, forbidden by the church hierarchy in all circumstances:

  • Only 23% of US Catholics agree with the bishops’ position that abortion should be illegal in all circumstances;
  • Although 97% of Italians are Catholic, 74% favor the use of the “abortion pill,” RU-486; and
  • 70% of Mexican urban Catholics think abortion should be allowed in some or all circumstances.

The report demonstrates that the divisions between the laity and the hierarchy of the Catholic church are deep and diverse. While church teachings prohibit the use of modern contraception in any form and refuses to sanction the use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS:

  • 64% of US Catholics view the church’s teachings on sexual behavior as outdated;
  • In the Philippines, whose population is 83% Catholic, 94% said that it is important “to have the ability to control one’s fertility or plan one’s family;”
  • 43% of Catholic women in Nigeria use condoms for family planning and STDS;
  • Catholic women’s use of modern methods of contraception in Kenya increased substantially over a five-year period;
  • Among 907 people surveyed in Mexico (which is 90% Catholic), 91% report having a permissive attitude toward contraceptive pills; and
  • In the United States, Catholic women are as likely as Protestant women to have ever used modern contraception (88% vs. 90%, respectively).

Catholics are also uncomfortable with the Catholic hierarchy’s foray into the political arena, preferring instead that the church concern itself with addressing the needs of the poor, promoting human rights and providing moral guidance.

  • 51% of US Catholic voters believed the Vatican should be treated as a ongovernmental organization, like all other religions that participate in the United Nations;
  • In Ireland, Catholics who feel that the church has too much power increased from 38% in 1991 to 46% in 1998;
  • 56% of Catholics in Poland believe the church’s involvement in politics is too great; and
  • Mexican Catholics overwhelmingly agree (81%) that the church should not have influence on the Mexican government.

“We are seeing a silent revolution among Catholics in Mexico,” stated Roberto J. Blancarte, Ph.D., a leading Mexican sociologist of religion and former staff member at the Mexican Office of Foreign Affairs for the Vatican. “This is the one of the first surveys on what Catholics really think about sexual and reproductive health and rights, and it shows us that there is a big breach between Catholics and the bishops on these issues. Catholics used to be more afraid of what the bishops and the church were saying—now they are deciding for themselves. What we see is a more mature society and a more democratic one in which the most important guide is the individual conscience, not the institution of the church. What we also see is how isolated the bishops are from society and from faithful Catholics.”

The data in Catholic Attitudes on Sexual Behavior & Reproductive Health illustrate the variety of Catholic opinions and behavior around the world. Multinational surveys were a major source of information and were conducted in a coordinated fashion by government and academic institutions that use a standardized data collection methodology. They are conducted periodically to assess trends in people’s attitudes, beliefs and behavior. Information was also compiled from multiple sources including magazines, market research reports, peer-reviewed journals, statistical databases, reproductive health advocates, newspapers and Catholic reference books.

To view the report please click here.