The Vatican’s Road Not Taken on Birth Control

Today I had the privilege of attending a discussion with Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown Law student who testified in front of Congress in favor of the contraception mandate and became the center of the subsequent public debate when Rush Limbaugh called her a slut and a prostitute for her trouble.  For sensitive and insightful commentary on this issue, see here.

Ms. Fluke spoke about the role of contraception in preventative care and pointed out the obstacles women, and Georgetown students in particular, face when it comes to getting access to contraception.  Georgetown’s health plan covers contraception for reasons other than preventing pregnancy – so essentially, as preventive care for conditions like painful periods, ovarian cysts, and endometriosis – but the extensive, suspicious questioning that women seeking prescriptions must undergo first from their provider and secondly from their insurance company often leave these women without access even when needed for serious health problems.  Meanwhile, off-campus clinics women could go to as an alternative for lower-cost contraception are losing funding.

She brought up a few points about Georgetown’s insurance policies that I didn’t know: insurance for faculty and staff does cover contraception for any purpose, even prevention of pregnancy, and unlike student insurance plans, the university subsidizes faculty and staff insurance.  Ms. Fluke said that a survey conducted by the Georgetown Law Students for Reproductive Justice found that 77% of Catholic and Jesuit law schools covered contraception for students for any purpose.   Considering that so many of Georgetown’s peer institutions are willing to compromise on this issue to meet the health needs of students, it’s disappointing to me that Georgetown will wait until forced by federal mandate to provide contraceptive coverage to students.

Also today, researching for a paper, I was surprised to learn that in 1968, when Pope Paul VI issued an encyclical stating that contraception was unacceptable, the decision almost went another way.  A commission established in 1964 to reach a decision about artificial birth control methods reached the majority opinion that it should be allowed, based on the lived experiences of Catholic couples, a reexamination of the theological underpinnings of opposing contraception, and the the shifting understanding that “mother” was but one role a woman played in her lifetime.  Out of fifteen members of the commission, nine voted to allow contraception, three abstained, and three opposed.  Those opposed filed a minority report essentially arguing that the church could not change a position it had held to for so long.

Pope Paul VI adopted the minority opinion, and issued Humanae Vitae, the encyclical which said that “each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.” This stunning refusal to address the real needs of Catholic women and families has caused the church to lose credibility in the eyes of many Catholics.  At the same time, the Vatican has stood by this judgment and attempted to use its international influence to impose it, quite often to the detriment of social justice, which I would assume to be a more important goal.  The Church has been responsible for spreading misinformation in Africa about condoms’ effectiveness in preventing AIDS and blocking UN family planning programs in developing countries that could dramatically reduce poverty, for example.  For more detailed information, see Catholics for Choice’s publication on the Vatican’s ban on contraception.

A full understanding birth control as preventive care doesn’t just mean issues like menstrual pain and ovarian cysts, but also means preventing pregnancy.  It means that sexuality is a normal part of a woman’s life, not a sin whose consequences she should suffer, and that controlling when, if ever, she becomes pregnant is an essential part of bodily integrity and health management.  For the Catholic Church, accepting birth control would mean accepting that the tactic of forcing everyone under its influence, whether Catholic or not, to adhere to an ideological vision of how humans should behave is simply bad policy.  It would mean understanding that the most effective way to achieve social justice is to listen to the actual needs of those to whom you minister and address them to create a healthy, functioning, and just society.

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