My Catholic Conscience Tells Me Congress Is Wrong to Take Family Planning From Poor Women
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Like others, I am deeply concerned about recent moves in Congress that would restrict access to reproductive health-care services, especially for poor women. The situation reminds me of other experiments where a few people with extreme views sought to pass policy that impacted a significantly wider group of people—with devastating consequences. Below, I will recount how the hierarchy of the Catholic church hijacked a process that was on the verge of overturning the complete ban on contraception. But today, in the U.S. Congress, an anti-choice cabal in the Republican Party is seeking to prevent poor women accessing federally funded family planning and other reproductive health services. There are currently three bills that would do just that: the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act” (HR 3), the “Protect Life Act” (HR 358) and the “Title X Abortion Provider Prohibition Act” (HR 217). They, along with the budget which passed the House and did not include crucial family planning funding will severely impact the lives of millions of American families. As a Catholic, I find the fact that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has supported these attacks on health-care services for poor women adds insult to injury.
In the 1960s, the Vatican began a new era that promised openness and optimism for the Catholic church with the start of Vatican II—a series of conferences and conversations involving many thousands of Catholics, lay and clerical alike. That era ended badly with the release of the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968 , which rejected all modern forms of family planning because, it said, “Each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.” In coming to that decision, the pope appointed a panel that included laypeople and clerics to examine how family planning issues affected their lives. The laypeople came into conflict with the clerics who claimed to be experts on procreation, by recommending the church change its stance on the prohibition of contraception. The clerics were concerned about what an about-face to prior church teaching would mean—or, as one of these experts, Father Marcelino Zalba, said, “the millions we have sent to hell” by a previous prohibition that “was not valid.” Patty Crowley, one of the commission participants, responded by asking: “Father Zalba, do you really believe God has carried out all your orders?”
The commission decided that revising Catholic teachings on family planning did, in fact, make sense and was permissible within church teachings. The pope, however, ignored this decision and opted for a ban on the most effective methods of family planning, introducing standards that continue to be impossible for most Catholics to live with—and we don’t.
Since the fateful decision behind Humanae Vitae, Catholicism has split into two groups—conservatives, mostly but not exclusively clergy, who want to control our sexuality, and those who see their decisions about sexuality and childbearing as intrinsically connected to a life lived according to their conscience-based decisions. This dichotomy has deeply undermined the cohesion of the Catholic community as a whole.
Since the prohibition on contraception thirty-nine years ago, church attendance has plummeted alongside a rise in the percentage of Catholics who feel the hierarchy is not in tune with their lives. That the vast majority of Catholics do use birth control has become a “don’t ask, don’t tell” situation that has been difficult for both the laity and the clergy. Bishops’ conferences in Europe and North America tried initially to allow room for couples to “form their consciences in [the] light [of Humanae Vitae]” but were forced by the Vatican to “clarify” that Catholics must follow the pope’s teaching to the letter.