The Catholic Church’s Abortion Trump Card

Carolina Austria

In the Philippines, women's health advocates and legislators are working to create access to family planning and contraception for women but the Catholic Church is stuck on abortion and has its own agenda.

Picture accessible primary health care services including comprehensive women’s health, maternal health care and a host of sexual and reproductive health services covering both young and old.

Anywhere else, it may sound like a perfectly good idea. In the Philippines where a segment of the conservative Catholic hierarchy insists on imposing its views on public policy, reproductive health agendas are all supposedly a smokescreen for the legalisation of abortion.

In Manila, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference Episcopal Commission on Family Life marked the 40th anniversary of the Humanae Vitae by renewing the church’s stance against a variety of pending legislation supported by women’s rights advocates labelling them as “ DEATH” bills (to stand for Divorce, Euthanasia, Abortion, Total Reproductive Health, Homosexuality). Papal Nuncio Edward Joseph Adams also reminded Catholics that sex should not be treated as a pleasurable experience but as an act of self-giving love and called for self-giving that "starts in the God of love."

The Humanae Vitae was the 1968 Encyclical Letter of Pope Paul VI which laid down Catholic teaching against the use of contraceptives. The document was considered controversial when it was first issued, stating that no other document undermined the church’s teaching authority. Not only did it end up splitting the hierarchy but a majority of Catholics choose to ignore the ban.

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Catholics for Free Choice notes that according to R. Scott Appleby, a historian at the University of Notre Dame, "It was the first time in the history of the modern church that a papal teaching had been openly defied in such a widespread fashion."

Last week, Philippine Bishops also issued a call to deny communion to Catholic members of Congress who purportedly “push for the legalization of abortion.” The Bishops claimed that while not a sanction or a penalty, the denial of communion is a reaction to a person’s “public unworthiness” because of an “objective situation of sin.” According to the Bishops, in this case, “a person is in an objective situation of sin if he paved the way for people to commit abortion.” While Catholic teaching sanctions the rhythm method of family planning, however, its position equates all manner of contraception with abortion. In this case, the solons accused of “legalizing abortion” are the forty-eight sponsors of the reproductive health bill.

Despite this, reproductive health advocates supporting the measure insisted that the use of contraceptives can make resorting to clandestine abortions unnecessary. Abortion has been penalized in the Philippines since 1897 but in 2006, the Guttmacher Institute pegged the annual rate of abortions in the country at 473,000 or 27 out of 1,000 pregnancies, even higher than the annual rate in the United States (20:1000) where abortion is legal.

The irony is that the only mention of abortion in pending legislation is in the provision that mandates a standard of “humane treatment” in post-abortion care. The bill does not even propose legalization of abortion as the Catholic Church alleges. While the Church proclaims that Humanae Vitae in 1968 represented its reaction against population control programs and the widespread use of modern contraceptives, further conflation of contraception with abortion actually took place over a period of years, culminating during the reign of Pope John Paul II. Even as St. Augustine laid the basis for Catholic teaching condemning how abortion breaks the connection between sex and procreation, he didn’t peg the beginning of “life” at fertilisation.

In fact in the 8th century, penance for the commission of abortion took into consideration the circumstances of women who procured them, specifically in situations of difficulty (e.g. inability to support a child, or concealment of dishonour).

To date, Philippine penal law reflects this concept of “concealment of dishonour” in a provision focused on mitigating circumstances in the case of abortion. On one hand, it could be argued that the notions contained in “concealment of dishonour” are premised on archaic views about women’s capacities and status prevailing at the time. On the other hand, the Church’s current uncompromising and absolutist position on abortion and contraception allows virtually no room for understanding the specific circumstances of women who opt to have abortions (or in this case, decide to use contraception), let alone the exercise of moral deliberation or judgement.

The Catholic Church’s teachings on abortion have never been proclaimed “infallible” teaching by any Pope to date. As it stands today, however, the rigid interpretation and approach to abortion, right down to its conflation with contraception purporting to be premised on the value of “life,” tends to be a meaningless abstraction when it disregards the real lives of women.

In the Philippines where maternal mortality continues to soar at 162 per 100,000 live births, access to family planning information and services which include options in contraception, and humane treatment in post-abortion care are clearly a matter of life and death for Filipino women.

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