Roundup: Humanae Vitae Issued 40 Years Ago Today

Brady Swenson

Today marks the 40th anniversary of Pope Paul VI's declaration that the Catholic church stands opposed to contraception, Amendment may give Northern Ireland women same rights as every other woman in the UK, Talking to children about sex is important and okay with kids.

How Humanae Vitae Happened … 40 years ago today Pope Paul VI declared that the Catholic church stands opposed to all forms of contraception. Patsy McGarry looks back to the run-up to the decision to issue the encyclical in an article at the Irish Times today. McGarry writes that the "reaction to the encyclical was unprecedented in recent Catholic
Church history in that almost immediately there was dissent from
prominent theologians of the day." In Europe, one of the most influential critics was the late Cardinal
Suenens of Belgium. He wondered "whether moral theology took sufficient
account of scientific progress, which can help determine what is
according to nature. I beg you, my brothers, let us avoid another
Galileo affair. One is enough for the church." Indeed the story of how Humanae Vitae came to be issued is an intriguing one and set the Catholic church on a surely very different course than it would have been on these past 40 years had the decision gone the other way. McGarry concludes her article with an observation on the unintended consequenses of the encyclical:

However, the great legacy of Humanae Vitae, though not intended, was
that it prompted many lay Catholics to inform and decide for themselves
on the big questions. They would no longer be as inclined to accept
unquestioningly decisions of popes, bishops or priests.

Amendment To Give Northern Ireland Women Abortion Rights To Be Debated in UK … The UK’s 1967 Abortion Act gave every woman in the UK the right to receive abortion care except for women living in Northern Ireland. Diane Abbott writes in the Guardian that more than "50,000 of these women have been forced to travel to England and pay for an abortion privately."

Surveys reveal that most of those women would have preferred to have
the operation at home in Northern Ireland, but they feel that they have
no choice. Dr Audrey Simpson, director of the Family Planning
Association Northern Ireland says:

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A Northern Irish
woman in the 21st century who is the victim of rape or incest is
expected to give birth, or find up to £2,000 to travel for treatment in
England where women have the right to access safe abortion. These are a
vulnerable group of women who need support – not to be forced to find
money and travel long distances on their own.

But,
in many ways, the women who travel to England are the lucky ones. Most
working-class women must take their chances with the backstreet
abortionist.

Northern Irelands women may soon not have to travel and pay out of pocket for abortion care. An amendment currently making the rounds in UK’s parliment would give Norther Ireland’s women the same rights as every other woman in the UK.

Talking To Kids Openly About Sex Very Important … A recent survey of children 11-14 in the UK reveals that pre-teens would appreciate more open channels of communication with parents about sex related issues:

The research published on Thursday said that parents should talk to
children between the ages of 11 and 14, claiming that parents have
less influence once a teenager reaches 15.

It found
that three quarters wanted to talk to their parents, but one-in-five
parents said they found it a challenging subject to approach.

Some
44 per cent of teenagers did not trust information from friends, and a
quarter felt worried or scared that they had been given the wrong
information.

"Teenagers unanimously agree that parents who speak to them about
sex are in no way encouraging them to go out and do it," she said.

"In
fact the opposite is true – having everyday conversations as often as
possible about sex and relationships is proven to reduce risky
behaviour and can help young people make measured decisions about sex
and stay safe."

Family Planning Association chief
executive Julie Bentley said: "It is so important that parents have the
confidence to start a conversation with their teenagers and children
about sex and relationships as it makes a huge difference to their
sexual health.

Analysis Abortion

Ireland’s Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill: 21 Years After X, Business as Usual?

Lisa Hallgarten

In the wake of the tragic and preventable death of Savita Halappanavar, Irish politicians promised that this government would "not become the seventh to 'neglect and ignore' the issue of the Supreme Court ruling abortion on the X Case." Six months later, the cabinet has proposed a bill it says will not "change the law" on abortion.

In the wake of the tragic and preventable death of Savita Halappanavar, Irish politicians promised that the government would “not become the seventh to ‘neglect and ignore’ the issue of the Supreme Court ruling abortion on the X Case.”

Six months later, the cabinet has proposed a bill it says will not “change the law” on abortion. That is certainly clear. The bill does not change anything for the women who make the heartbreaking trip across the Irish Sea to Liverpool to end much wanted pregnancies following a diagnosis of catastrophic fetal anomaly. The bill does not address the thousands that fly into London, Liverpool, and Manchester to access abortion when they simply cannot contemplate having a baby (or another baby) at this time. The bill does not offer any comfort to those who are pregnant due to rape or abuse. The bill will not change the law. The question is will the bill provide the clarity that women and doctors so desperately need to prevent another tragic and unnecessary death?

Did anyone notice how seamlessly the name of this bill was changed from the “protection of maternal life” to the “protection of life during pregnancy”? Significant? The bill states more than once that its intention is not to ask doctors to weigh the life of the fetus against the life of the woman. However, when it demands that a doctor provides a reasonable opinion, its definition of “reasonable opinion” is “an opinion formed in good faith which has regard to the need to preserve unborn human life as far as practicable.” So fetal life remains a consideration.

Similarly the bill quotes the 1992 Supreme Court judgment on the X case, that “it is not necessary for medical practitioners to be of the opinion that the risk to the woman’s life is inevitable or immediate, as this approach insufficiently vindicates the pregnant woman’s right to life.” At the same time it emphasizes that there must be a “real and substantial risk to the woman’s life.” This is typical of the confusing, equivocal, and obfuscating tone of the whole bill. We want to save women’s lives, but…

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The regulations state two grounds for allowing an abortion: the serious risk of death for the woman from “physical illness” and the risk of death from “self-destruction” (suicide). In the meantime the bill offers no clarity about where on the trajectory between diagnosis of a pregnancy complication or expression of suicidal ideation, and death a doctor can legitimately provide abortion? This is exactly the conundrum that faced the doctors in the Halappanavar case.

When clinicians in the United Kingdom (excluding Northern Ireland) tell you that they would rather err on the side of caution, it means proceeding with abortion before a woman is at death’s door. In legally restricted jurisdictions such as Ireland, the side of caution means ensuring you and your patient are not risking 14 years in prison by acting too soon. It is not clear that the process set out in the bill will solve this problem because it is notoriously difficult to assess or even get agreement from colleagues about the level of risk a woman faces until often it’s too late.

As Obstetrician/Gynecologist Christian Fiala explains, “All laws which allow abortion only to ‘save the life of the woman’ are inherently unworkable. For a simple reason: you only know after the woman died that her life really was in danger. It is impossible to exactly predict when a patient will die. And as long as she is still alive there is always someone in the medical team who will raise his voice and ask to wait for another day and another day … until it is too late. The same applies to the current initiatives to verify whether or not a woman is really suicidal. This is impossible to reliably predict beforehand. If you really want to know, you have to see and wait … until it is too late.”

Given that the bill calls for two doctors to make the decision in the case of “physical illness” (except in an emergency situation) and three in the case of “self-destruction” there is generous scope for disagreement and procrastination.

So what does the bill improve? For those doctors who felt too vulnerable to act, even to save a woman’s life, regulation may be welcome. It provides a clear process for them, if an uncertain outcome for the woman. The process may rule out the possibility of abortion, but the doctor will have done the “right thing” by trying. The process is convoluted and possibly unworkable, especially in the case of suicidal ideation, but for the first time at least it’s in writing—it’s official.

It may appease Ireland’s friends and neighbors who looked on appalled as the Halappanavar case played out; and, in a dim light, it appears to meet the demand for legislation on this issue. As RHM Editor Marge Berer says, “It is a gift to the politicians who must have felt (no matter what their personal views) that their political lives were not worth having this fight. They can now say, ‘We did exactly what we were told to do by the European Court’ and no more. It will be impossible to oppose it—in those terms—from any point of view. The person/people who drafted it deserve a gold star for compliance with the political necessity involved.”

However, for those doctors who previously relied on their clinical judgment and did provide life-saving abortions, they may now find themselves tied up in red tape and delays, jumping through hoops that weren’t there yesterday. The powerful need to deny the very notion of life-saving abortion has meant that, to date, abortion has sometimes taken place, but quietly without fuss or comment, without anyone even naming it let alone publishing statistics on prevalence. According to one commentator, “The bizarre official position is: abortions happen in Ireland, but we don’t count them.” The nation, it seems, turned a blind eye. Now there are no blind eyes. All eyes are on the doctors.

Moreover, the details of the bill give a very clear message. The need for a specific combination of different clinicians who must practice in specific institutions, who will need to be certified and registered as suitable by professional associations to follow professional guidance that is yet to be written, and who will all need to be available in the right place at the right time, and if they can’t agree it will have to go to appeal, which could take up to seven days, and it is not entirely clear whether that appeal process might also be open to those hoping to block the abortion, and all this must happen in what may be a short window of opportunity to save a woman’s life—the message is that it may be easier to travel, or to die. So, business as usual then.

Commentary Religion

On Contraceptive Coverage, It’s Not Up to Obama to Decide What is More “Catholic”

Frances Kissling

The President seems unaware of the fact that Catholics who matter have disagreed with the Vatican’s current prohibition on contraception. Catholics, including institutions within the Catholic community, are free to follow their conscience on contraception. It is not up to the Obama administration to decide what action is more “Catholic" on the matter of contraception.

See all our coverage of the Birth Control Mandate 2011 here.

This article was amended at 2:22 pm Friday, November 25th to add a missing paragraph and missing words in three sentences.

When it comes to contraception, Catholics have stopped listening to popes, bishops and other institutional leaders.  It seems the only person left listening is President Obama. Obama, however, lacks the theological training—and it would seem the scholarly advice—needed to figure out if the bishops and various hospitals, universities, and social service agencies clamoring for a broadened “religious exemption” from new federal regulations really need them in order to be good Catholics. The regulations require insurance plans offered by employers to cover contraception without a co-pay, although they exempt churches and other specifically religious institutions from the requirement. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and other groups have been lobbying for a much broader exemption.

The President seems unaware of the fact that Catholic disagreement with the ban on birth control goes far beyond the average Catholic layperson. Some bishops, many priests, religious orders, theologians and church-related groups have publicly and privately disagreed with blanket prohibition of contraception. All of them, individuals and institutions, are free to follow their conscience on contraception and there is ample evidence that many of the very groups asking for an exemption from the new federal regulations have not followed church regulations religiously. Some within the organizations may agree with the ban, but not all, and none are required to do so.   

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Of course, it would take courage for organizations such as the Catholic Health Association (which sent a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services in September supporting a broader exemption) or Catholic Charities to publicly buck the U.S. bishops,  just follow the law and give their employees health insurance that makes it more possible to avoid pregnancies they cannot afford or do not want; but after all, being a Catholic is all about courage and helping the poor and marginalized. A fair number of employees of Catholic institutions are low-income workers, struggling to get by on a minimum wage. We Catholics are taught to follow our conscience rather than the positions of the Catholic church, even if it means getting kicked out of the church.  If Obama’s current religious advisers don’t know that, all he has to do is call one of the most trusted of Catholic theologians, Fr. Richard McBrien of Notre Dame. McBrien will repeat what he has said in his widely used text Catholicism:

If, after appropriate study, reflection and prayer, a person is convinced that his or her conscience is correct, in spite of a conflict with the moral teachings of the church, they not only may but must follow the dictates of their conscience rather than the teachings of the church.

Centuries earlier Thomas Aquinas said the same thing.  Yet, the Catholic-affiliated institutions asking for a religious exemption insist that corporations, like persons, have a conscience.

There is every indication that the conscience of these institutions tells them the church prohibition on contraception is wrong. Survey data and the behavior of these institutions evidence widespread disagreement with the official, but not infallible prohibition. Modest due diligence on the part of the administration before it grants a broader exemption is called for. They would discover that it is not only ordinary Catholics who believe birth control results in responsible parenthood and healthier relationships (98 percent of sexually-active Catholic women have used methods of birth control prohibited by the Vatican), but also bishops conferences, priests and theologians worldwide. The administration would also find numerous examples of “Catholic” agencies that have disregarded the prohibition and are providing or have provided contraception, including contraceptive sterilization.

That foundation of dissent from the 1968 Encyclical “Humanae Vitae,” which dashed Catholic hope of a new openness on sex and reproduction, was found in the statement of the Vatican spokesperson, Msgr.F. Lambruschini who assured reporters that it as not infallible a statement not contradicted by the Vatican. He then disturbed many of the world’s bishops by claiming the encyclical required “the assent of the faithful.”

That demand for assent to a non-infallible teaching opened a floodgate of commentary by Bishops’ Conferences around the world, hedging their bets on the encyclical and expressing sympathy with Catholics who decided not to follow it. The Canadian bishops wrote:

In accordance with the accepted principles of moral theology… persons who have tried sincerely but without success to pursue a line of conduct in keeping with the given directives, may be safely assured that whoever honestly chooses that course which seems right to him does so in good conscience. 

The Dutch bishops were more forthright. All nine met and issued a statement that said they “consider that the encyclical’s total rejection of contraceptive methods is not convincing on the basis of the arguments put forward.” If the Dutch bishops did not find the Catholic prohibition on birth control convincing who is the President to de facto affirm a Catholic doctrine by providing some Catholics with an exemption from public policy mandates supported by popular, scientific and medical opinion?

The granting of an exemption from regulations that are in the best interest of public health and enhance the lives especially of women should never be a political act, but rather a careful, factual appraisal of an urgent and clear religious claim.

Many Catholic religious leaders have conducted that appraisal and found Humanae Vitae wanting. French, German, British, Belgian, and other bishops, while cautious not to openly challenge the teaching itself, issued statements that stressed the right of Catholics to follow their conscience. U.S. bishops, as always eager to demonstrate their loyalty to Rome, towed the line. American priests and theologians were far less constrained. Some theologians and priests immediately issued a Statement of Conscience that rejected Humanae Vitae. The authors felt so strongly that they published the statement in the Washington Post, leading D.C. Cardinal Patrick O’Boyle to punish about 40 of its signers who reported to him. The courage shown by those theologians and priests would be welcome among the leaders of today’s high-powered Catholic charities.

Among the signers was a revered DC Jesuit, Horace McKenna. Fr. McKenna was a passionate advocate of the poor who eventually founded D.C.’s SOME (So Others Might Eat). Based on his experience of hearing the confessions of DC’s poorest Catholics, he made it clear to Cardinal O’Boyle that he would tell them in confession that they were not bound to follow the prohibition. In short order, the Cardinal stripped him the right of hearing confessions.

In order to avoid punishment and conflict, most dissent on contraception by Catholic agencies is quiet. Catholic social services agencies treating migrant workers have had contracts with Planned Parenthood to provide contraception for their clients; Catholic hospitals allow doctors who have offices on their premises to prescribe birth control, some mergers between Catholic and non-Catholic hospitals accommodate family planning – and historically even found a way to provide contraceptive sterilization. Some deals fly under the radar and survive; others are squashed.

The bishops and cardinals have not changed.  Unfortunately, there are few Horace McKennas left who will stand up for the poor against the tired efforts of bishops to demand public policy that conforms to their narrow view of what it means to be Catholic. If Horace McKenna were president of Catholic University or ran Catholic Charities instead of Larry Snyder, he’d be lobbying the bishops to provide birth control for poor women and migrant workers rather than fighting for the right to deny janitors, college students and healthcare aides insurance for contraception. He certainly would not be supporting the bishops, who, in the face of an Amnesty International report on the immorally-high rate of maternal death in the United States and the increasing poverty of women and children coldly claimed that pregnancy was not a disease and contraception not preventive medicine.

Today’s bishops are a cold-hearted, power-hungry lot.  Not a Raymond Hunthausen among them. In 1986, Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen of Seattle was charged by the Vatican with allowing sterilizations to be provided in the diocese’s hospitals–-as well as lack of firmness on altar girls and gays. He was, for a time, denied the right to run his diocese; Bishops Donald Wuerl was appointed as “co-adjutor” of the diocese to ensure orthodoxy. Wuerl has risen to the rank of Cardinal and now presides over one of the poorest of the dioceses, Washington D.C. In the church today, only orthodoxy is rewarded.

The heavy hand of the Vatican also came down on the Sisters of Mercy. In 1980 after a five-year study, the Sisters, who then ran one of the largest hospital systems in the United States (only the Veterans Administration was larger) , decided that good medical care included providing postpartum contraceptive sterilization when women requested it. To deny them would subject the women to a second medical risk if they were sterilized at a later date. The Vatican got wind of the possible change in policy and threatened to put the whole community in “receivership” and take over their hospitals, schools, and everything else if they did not change their mind and prohibit sterilization. The Sisters capitulated, fearing greater harm to their patients if the Vatican were in charge.

Can the Obama administration decide which action was more “Catholic,” the Vatican’s power grab, or the sisters desire to provide women with the safest medical care? Can or should the state get itself in a position of closely scrutinizing the validity of religious and moral claims for an exemption from public policy decisions?  We have just such a process in place for deciding whether a request to be exempt from military service: The state decides on a case-by-case basis if the claim is genuine or motivated by fear, laziness, or other less-than-honorable reasons. If we are to grant broad exemptions to religious institutions, should not a similar process be used? 

Best Obama stay out of the internal theological disagreements Catholics have about reproductive health. Best he focus on implementing the long-standing policy consensus that family planning is essential to women’s health and empowerment and contributes to the social and economic wellbeing of all. The religious exemption the HHS has drafted which exempts organizations that have the inculcation of religion as their primary purpose and which employ and serve primarily members of their own faith respects unambiguous religious institutions.  Combined with the conscience protection offered to individuals it is more than adequate protection of religious liberty.


These groups are asking you to join them in telling the White House not to capitulate to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and throw women under the bus on contraceptive coverage:

Catholics for Choice

National Women’s Law Center

Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health

Feminist Majority Foundation

Emily’s List

Planned Parenthood Federation of America

NARAL Pro-Choice America