By Charles L. Rulon
Emeritus, Life & Health Sciences
Long Beach City College
Every year in the U.S. over three million unintended pregnancies occur. About 1.3 million end in abortions. But with emergency contraceptive pills (EC) taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex the number of unintended pregnancies might actually be cut in half. Thus, the widespread easy availability of EC could constitute one of the most important advances in birth control in the last 40 years.[i]
Yet, there remains strong religious opposition to EC, mostly from the Roman Catholic Church. The Vatican long ago created its own picture of reality with all sex being designed by Nature/God for reproduction in marriage. Any form of sex that does not end in the possibility of pregnancy is, according to the Church, “unnatural, disordered and immoral.” The Church’s immense power, coupled with its teachings on contraception, abortion, homosexuality and sex in general have strongly influenced the leaders and rulers of entire nations for centuries.
A 1991 report by Dr. R. Ravenholt, former director of the Global Population Program of the U.S. Agency for International Development (1966-1979), said:
“…The current code of silence with respect to identifying the main adversary of reproductive freedom, the Roman Catholic Church, is fomenting a world disaster analogous in scope to that which would have ensued if leaders had failed to identify Russia as the main adversary of democratic political freedom.”
Ravenholt went on to detail how Catholic bishops and Catholic presidential appointees planned and largely achieved the sabotage of a number of U.S. family planning programs.[ii]
U.S. bishops continue to be vocal and consistent opponents of EC (plus being opposed to all domestic and international family planning programs). Also, Vatican officials have aggressively used their Church’s official governmental status (which no other religion has) to block programs and policies that would make contraception and EC more accessible in the poorer parts of the world.
1994: The third major Overpopulation and Development Conference was held in Cairo, Egypt. Because of the unrelenting political efforts of the Catholic Church, the conference became bogged down over the role that EC and early abortions should play in family planning and female reproductive health issues. Only a serious watering down of the pro-choice position allowed the conference to finally continue. “God’s laws are absolute,” maintained the Pope. “They cannot be changed by a vote.”[iii]
1998: The Vatican attempted to stop the distribution of EC to those Bosnian women in Kosovar refugee camps who had just been brutally raped and had already lost everything, including their loved ones. Archbishop Flynn referred to those aid workers offering EC to raped women as perpetrators of violence.[iv]
2007: Leaders of Amnesty International, a global human rights organization, supported the right of those women in Darfur refuge camps who were brutally gang raped to have access to EC and early abortions. In response, the Vatican suspended all financial aid to Amnesty International and called upon Catholics worldwide to boycott the organization.[v]
Today, there are some 600 Catholic hospitals in the U.S. servicing about 50 million patients a year. One-sixth of all admittances are to Catholic hospitals. About 80% of these hospitals don’t offer EC to those rape victims who are admitted, nor refer them to hospitals that do supply EC. Doctors at Catholic hospitals are often over-ruled by bishops. In recent years a growing number of non-sectarian hospitals and HMOs have been taken over by Catholic health organizations.[vi]
In addition, the Roman Catholic Church has made it clear that if any governmental agency attempts to force any of the Church’s over 300,000 health facilities for the poor to offer contraceptives, sterilization procedures or EC, the Church would withdraw its vitally needed financial support from those facilities.
Some final thoughts
Today, most American and European Catholics pay little attention to their Church’s birth control prohibitions and are using modern means of contraception and EC in about the same measure as are Protestant and Jewish couples. Also, as early as 1979 a major poll found that 64% of all Catholics felt that the “right of a woman to have an abortion should be left entirely to the woman and her doctor.” And by the late 1980s Catholic women in the U.S. were actually having abortions at a slightly higher rate than were Protestants.
Yet, the Vatican continues to insist that we can’t believe in social justice if we also believe in abortion. But since most birth control is far from perfect and humans will always make mistakes, where is the social justice in forcing women to stay pregnant against their will? Where is it written that God wants women to be unwilling embryo incubators, obligatory breeding machines? Where is the religious wisdom and social justice in placing women in a permanently subordinate position to men and essentially in reproductive bondage to the state?
The ability of women to have reproductive control over their own bodies has long been an essential goal in the never-ending battle for global female equality, stronger families and reduced poverty and disease. To quote Claire Short, a Roman Catholic and former International Development Secretary for the United Kingdom:
“My church is playing a deeply obstructive role where, if it had its way [regarding contraceptives and abortions], a million more people would get the HIV virus, there would be more and more unwanted pregnancies, more and more illegal abortions, and more and more mothers dying as a result of illegal abortions. That is the position they are trying to work for. And it’s a morally destructive course.”
[i]EC was finally approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1999 for women 18 and over with a doctor’s prescription. In 2006 it became available without a prescription and in 2009 the age was dropped to 17. Girls under 17 can obtain a prescription. In France EC is dispensed to high school girls by the school nurse. See
[ii] http://www.population-security.org/rave-91-03.htm ; www.population-security.org/liew-92-03.htm
[iii] For example, see http://www.seechange.org/media/ms%20magazine%2010%2099.htm
[iv] For example, see http://www.seechange.org/media/a%20callous%20and%20coercive%20policy.htm
[v] For example, see http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/politics/amnesty-to-defy-catholic-church-over-rape-victims-abortion-rights-461358.html
[vi]See Rob Boston’s article, “Medical Emergency: Catholic Hospitals Usurp Patient’s Rights” in The Humanist (March-April 2011). One organization fighting Catholic hospital mergers is Merger Watch (www.mergerwatch.org).