Mixed messages from the Catholic Church on contraception

US debate is tip of the iceberg

Latitude News staff By Latitude News staff

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum reacts to President Barack Obama’s remarks on the contraception issue while speaking to a crowd at the in Boise, Idaho, February 14, 2012. (REUTERS/Brian Losness)

Over the past few weeks, contraception has become a hot-button issue in American politics. After the Obama Administration began requiring employers to provide contraception in their health coverage, the Catholic Church fought back, saying the ruling runs against Church doctrine.

Pundits, activists and presidential hopefuls have been up in arms, despite the fact that 98 per cent of Catholic women in America say they have used some type of birth control.

Latitude News talked to people coming in and out of the Catholic Carney Hospital in Boston to find out what they thought about the rule:

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Peter and Susan asked us not to use their last names. And Peter offered this query:

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If this debate can explode in the United States, which is only 22 per cent Catholic, how does it play out in countries where Catholics are the majority?

Latin America: not as doctrinaire as you might think

Latin America is roughly 85 per cent Catholic, so one might expect the Church to wield significant power over policy and public opinions regarding contraception. But evidence and word of mouth suggest that clergy are far more open-minded to contraception in the Spanish-speaking world than in the United States.

Carmen Barroso directs the International Planned Parenthood Federation’s work in Latin America and the Caribbean. “In Latin America, surprisingly for many people, it’s not as controversial as in this country, which is reaching a level of lunacy,” says Barroso.

Barroso recently visited a rural hospital in Panama that served as a birthing center for indigenous communities. The hospital was run by the Catholic Church, but regularly doled out contraceptives to women who had just given birth. A 2005 report from The Lancet found this practice was also common in Guatemala.

A man dressed as a condom runs during an AIDS and HIV prevention campaign in downtown Lima, Peru, November 28, 2008. (REUTERS/Enrique Castro-Mendivil)

“The resistance [in Latin America] is there too,” says Barroso, “it’s just not as loud, as concerted and as fierce as it is in the US.

It’s not clear sailing for contraception advocates in Latin America. The so-called “morning after” pill, for example, continues to draw controversy – it was recently banned in Honduras, a move upheld by that nation’s Supreme Court.

But most forms of contraception are legally available to Latin Americans who can find and afford them. And a 2004 study from Catholics for a Free Choice found that most Catholics in Latin America use contraceptives.

Close to Rome

Even in Italy, the home of the Vatican, contraception is legal and available. But, according to Italian law, doctors are free to follow their faith and refuse to provide contraception.

Dr. Giandomenico Follini is a Primary Care Physician in Milan. He is among the 75 per cent of Italian doctors who are conscientious objectors, as they are known.

“Life is a gift that we sometimes forget we have,” says Follini. “Life was given to us and we have to use it right.”

Follini says he tells patients the risks and benefits of contraception, but will not prescribe it. And patients have learned to stop asking him.

“I don’t hide it,” Follini says, “but of course I don’t write it on my front door. But I don’t get a lot of requests for contraception: last year they were no more than two or three.”

While Italian law does not allow entire hospitals to object to providing contraception, many effectively do because all of their doctors are conscientious objectors.

The Philippines: “At risk of excommunication”

The current debate over contraception in the Philippines makes the American drama look like a food fight.

Advocates of the Reproductive Health Bill stage a “die-in” during a protest outside the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines building in Manila, February 27, 2011. (REUTERS/ Cheryl Ravelo)

The Philippines is over 80 per cent Catholic – that’s a higher percentage than France, Ireland, Chile and Canada. And a law weaving through the Filipino Congress could lift a ban on using public funding for contraception and birth control education.

“The Catholic Church has always been powerful in the Philippines,” says Dr. Junice Melgar, the head of the Likhaan Center for Women’s Health in Manila.

Local authorities control hospitals and public health centers in the Philippines. Melgar says affluent Filipinos can purchase contraception at a pharmacy, while the country’s poor – about 40 per cent of the population – have virtually no access to it. Her organization recently opened three clinics in Manila because of the lack of government services.

“The clinics are full,” says Melgar. “We’re getting 70 to 100 patients for family planning everyday. So that is an expression of the pent up demand.”

The Catholic Church has been vocal in its opposition of the bill, even threatening President Benigno Aquino with excommunication.

“I remain committed to pushing for the introduction of a law for responsible parenthood …at risk of excommunication, it is my obligation as a leader,” said the President last year.

Melgar says if the bill passes, it will be by a narrow majority.

Survey after survey in the Philippines has always said that between 70 to 80 per cent actually want a reproductive health policy. But our public officials are just too scared of the Catholic Church. I can’t understand it because I’m not a practicing Catholic, but I know they have this psychological hold over elected officials.”

Story Contributors: Michael May, Jack Rodolico, Maria Balinska, Chi Liquicia, Massimo Paradiso

  • ClaireHertan

    Commonsense in today’s inter-connected, open world should prevail and foster spirituality and life. How can the Catholic Church’s hierarchy legislate, or even take a position on children, marriage, parenthood, and carnal love without being open to these life altering events themselves? The all male “celibate” hierarchy doesn’t even include the female perspective – no wonder the more educated “Catholics” disregard its laws. Is it the Catholic Church’s goal to eliminate poverty or create it? It is the RESPONSIBILITY of religions and world governments to educate their populations on reproduction and ensure the availability of CONTRACEPTION – especially as human life expectancy is extending to over 100+ years.