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Letters and Op-Eds - 2006

Baltimore sun

Ban on contraception antiquated, dangerous

Frances Kissling

14 November 2006

When the archbishop of Kampala, Uganda, Cardinal Emmanuel Wamala, told the BBC Panorama documentary Sex and the City that it was preferable to die than to use a condom, many suddenly realized the depth of the Catholic hierarchy's opposition to the use of condoms. When it became clear that he was referring to a woman who wanted to protect herself from HIV/AIDS and that her husband was infected, many simply could not believe it.

This week, Baltimore plays host to the U.S. Catholic bishops' fall meeting. One of the most important items on the agenda is a new document seeking to put a positive spin on the church's continued opposition to contraception.

The vast majority of U.S. Catholics stopped listening to the church about birth control in 1968, when Pope Paul VI dashed couples' hopes and retained the ban on contraception. Since then, popes and some bishops have been trying to convince us that there is really something transcendental about requiring couples to abstain from sex about 10 days every month so they may practice natural family planning - the only method of birth control the church approves of.

According to reports, the bishops' document, "Married Love and the Gift of Life," promotes what they call the "theology of the body." Couples are told that true love and real intimacy are enhanced by mutual sacrifice, such as periodically denying each other the goodness of sexual intercourse. This, it is asserted, will enhance their relationship.

Few couples have bought it. According to the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth, less than 3 percent of Catholic couples use natural family planning.

The church's ban on contraception includes condoms, even to prevent HIV and AIDS, and information about emergency contraception, even to women who have been raped. It also encourages an anti-abortion lobby that refuses to support policies that would reduce the need for abortion.

Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, told the BBC that HIV is small enough to pass through condoms. A priest on CNN's Crossfire told me it was worse to lose your soul and go to hell because you used a condom to prevent AIDS than to die of AIDS.

Now reports suggest that the Vatican may be considering a change in the teaching on condoms. However, early reports that the pope might consider lifting the ban were flatly denied by some and amended by others to make clear that if there were any change, it would apply only to married couples. It was feared a wider recognition of the right or responsibility to use condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS might be seen as legitimating sex outside of marriage. Older Catholics will remember that there was also widespread belief in the 1960s that the ban on contraception for married couples would be lifted. As we know, it was not, despite a papal commission's recommendation.

Why does the Catholic hierarchy stubbornly persist in advancing an option that is impractical and dangerous for many Catholics?

Perhaps the answer lies in the very nature of a system where intellectual thought and ethics are dominated by a male, celibate leadership. The teachings of the Catholic Church on sexuality and reproduction vary drastically from those of faiths in which clergy marry and women are clergy.

There is no other Christian denomination that teaches that married couples cannot use contraception or offers pseudo-psychological pronouncements about the beauty of abstinence within marriage. Judaism favors contraception. Islam, which many think of as being behind the times on sexuality, also approves contraception and accepts abortion early in pregnancy for married couples.

A statement by the Catholic hierarchy on contraception and sexual life could be consigned to the religion pages and viewed as a quaint, minority view were it not the prelude to church efforts to restrict family planning funding worldwide and to promote abstinence-centered sexuality education in schools.

Domestically, the most tragic dimension of this anti-contraceptive policy is that it contributes to a very high abortion rate. A study released this spring by the Guttmacher Institute demonstrates why the church should rethink its approach. It showed that a decades-long decrease in abortion rates had stalled from 2000 to 2003. Moreover, researchers expect that reversal to continue.

It is time for the Catholic Church to enter the 21st century. The bishops should use their public authority to truly prevent abortion and be honest about how that could be achieved. The way to do this is not only to support contraception but also to encourage women and men to use it as a responsible expression of their sexuality. The job of the U.S. bishops is not to bleat the same tired and useless line to their followers, but to lead Catholics in a responsible direction.

This article originally appeared in the 14 November 2006 edition of the Baltimore Sun.