The Roman Catholic Church has, historically, condemned all methods of contraception: even the rudimentary withdrawal method, thanks to an episode in Genesis. (“He spilled the semen on the ground, lest he should give offspring … what he did was displeasing in the sight of The Lord”). This doctrine is built on the belief that it is sinful to prevent new human life from coming into existence.
In recent years, however, church officials appear to have been equivocating on this antiquated stance. Last year the church conceded that their position on contraception “is commonly perceived today as an intrusion in the intimate life of the couple and an encroachment on the autonomy of conscience.”
In a bizarre press conference this week, Pope Francis announced that Catholics should not breed “like rabbits”, after meeting children in the Philippines who had been abandoned by parents that couldn’t afford to care for them. He also publically criticised a woman who is apparently “tempting God” by falling pregnant for an eighth time, after delivering seven children by caesarean section.
Any indications that the Church is beginning to re-examine its opposition to birth control methods should be heartening. Pope Francis certainly seems to realise how irrelevant the church’s rulings have become, and wishes to address that, but in this instance his remarks are simply hypocritical.
He called the behaviour of the unnamed woman “an irresponsibility” and allegedly also asked “does she want to leave the seven orphans?” However, his disparaging comments come just days after he defended the Church’s ban on artificial contraception to a crowd of 86,000 Catholics in Manila.
Instead, Pope Francis advises couples that “God gives you methods to be responsible”, a reference to the church-approved method of abstaining from sex while a woman is ovulating to avoid pregnancy.
Unfortunately, natural family planning is only 76% effective: in one year, one-quarter of women who rely upon this method alone will become unintentionally pregnant. In comparison, the contraceptive implant is 99.95% effective, regular injections are 94% effective and the pill is 91% effective.
This disparity is partly because natural family planning relies upon abstinence for at least 10 days each cycle. It’s also because fertility is difficult to accurately predict: it can be impacted by illness, medication and malnutrition, as well as hormone shifts during teenage years, when breastfeeding, or approaching menopause. It’s almost laughable that this is touted as the only way to plan a family, even among Catholics: 78% support contraception and 65% think abortion should be allowed.
Unfortunately, it’s not hilarious when access to effective contraceptive is still heavily restricted. Multiple studies show that without access to effective and affordable contraception, the number of unplanned pregnancies rises, as do rates of sexually transmitted infections and unsafe abortions.
This is epitomised in the Philippines, a devoutly Catholic country which sees an estimated 600,000 illegal abortions per year. 90,000 of these women are later hospitalized for post-abortion complications and 1,000 result in maternal death. It is less than a year since The Supreme Court approved a momentous law requiring contraception to be freely available at public health clinics, and compulsory sex education in schools. The United Nations stated this would help reduce poverty among the fifth of the nation’s 107 million people who live in slum conditions. For more than a decade, the Catholic Church had fought against this bill and denounced politicians who supported it.
Worldwide, more than 220 million women in developing countries lack access to contraceptives and voluntary family planning information and services. In 2012, an estimated 80 million women in these countries had an unintended pregnancy; subsequently at least one in four resorted to an unsafe abortion. Birth spacing is also critical for reducing child mortality: if mothers could wait 3 years to conceive again after giving birth, the deaths of 1.8 million children would be avoided each year.
Pope Francis said that he advocates “responsible parenthood”. It is responsible to provide women with access to affordable, effective birth control. It is responsible for women, and their partners, to select a method of birth control that suits their needs. It is deeply irresponsible to preach to the 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide that they must rely on a family planning method that is 76% effective, and then to criticise women who give birth to more children than Pope Francis deems sensible.