Prolife groups recently accused the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) of “shamelessly” exploiting Haitians to advance their pro-choice agenda, or in their words “propagate its cycle of “reproductive health” that ends in depopulation". Jim Sedlak, Vice-President of American Life League said, “When people are out in the street and they can’t get food and they can’t get water, the last thing in the world that they need is family-planning services”.
To Mr. Sedlak and critics of IPPF’s work in Haiti, I say you have this one wrong. Now more than ever access to condoms, other contraceptives and, yes, some abortion services are essential to Haiti’s long-term health and survival. Access to basic, life-saving health care that protects populations from HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted infections and other life threatening diseases is a human right. The decision to delay pregnancy and make choices about her reproductive health is every woman’s right. Health information simply is not available to a majority of Haitians, and sexual and reproductive health services are practically non-existent in Haiti. Thus, organizations like IPPF are obligated to make medical supplies and information available to women, affording them their right to make choices and protect their bodies.
Even before the earthquake, Haiti endured some of the worst health conditions in the Western Hemisphere. The Haitian health care infrastructure has always been poor. A staggering 76 percent of infant births are assisted by non-qualified personnel and in some areas, there is a complete absence of reproductive health services. Haiti has an infant mortality rate of 57 per 1,000 births and 1 in 44 women dies in pregnancy or childbirth each year. Nearly six percent of the population ages 15 to 49 are living with HIV/AIDS. The recent devastation only intensifies the brutality of Haiti’s health care infrastructure. During times of turmoil and disorder, women and girls are particularly vulnerable to rape, violence and exploitation. Now is the time when family planning services and supplies are not only necessary, but essential to improving and protecting women’s health in Haiti.
IPPF has worked in Haiti for over twenty years providing family planning services and information to women when virtually none had previously existed. However, they do not only promote family planning. They also provide basic health care, including specialist maternity and sexual and reproductive health services. They distribute health information to women across Haiti, giving them the most vital tool they need to make choices about their bodies – knowledge.
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In providing these services, IPPF and other aid organizations must remember that as many as 80 percent of the Haitian population identifies as Catholic and that Haiti’s undying faith has been the driving force behind their resilience to recover from this disaster. At the same time, however, they cannot ignore that the Catholic Church’s opposition to birth control and abortion denies Haitians their basic right to family planning services. The Vatican demonizes contraception, declaring hormonal birth control methods ‘abortificient’, and abortion a mortal sin. In the face of a population suffering from an HIV/AIDS pandemic, hunger and poverty, such an ideology is a huge barrier to contraceptive use. I believe this stance instills fear in men, women and adolescents who may otherwise choose to use contraceptives to prevent disease and/or birth. With their unyielding position on contraception, the Vatican has neglected the Catholic Church’s obligation to provide for the poor and promote good health. They have infringed upon Haitians’ basic right to protect themselves against disease, and make choices about the timing of pregnancy. Denying them this right makes an already displaced population more vulnerable.
In a society where faith is intertwined in all aspects of life, including politics and culture, aid organizations working in the country are morally obligated to exercise culturally sensitive medical practices and respect the religious beliefs that have given Haitians their exceptional strength to overcome this catastrophe. However, it is also their humanitarian obligation to provide men and women with basic preventative and life-saving medical care, including those which promote positive sexual and reproductive health outcomes.
Yes, the earthquake in Haiti has in many ways devastated the Haitian people and yes, it has made a dire health situation a catastrophic one. Despite this the Haitian people stand strong and hopeful, a disposition largely attributable to their unyielding faith in God. In recent weeks, we’ve seen the Haitian people while mourning, dancing and praying in the masses. Eyewitnesses recount thousands of Haitians in the streets chanting in unison, “We are alive. Haiti is alive." Haitians are not helpless victims. They are strong and they are alive. They have a united voice and with this voice they have the right to make choices about their future. It is essential for relief and recovery organizations to provide Haiti not only with food and water, but also with access to family planning services that can empower them to make choices about their reproductive and sexual health.