News Sexual Health

Advocates Hope Vatican Conference on HIV/AIDS will Build On Pope’s Comments About Condoms

Martha Kempner

This weekend the Vatican is hostings a symposium on preventing HIV and caring for those  living with the virus.  Advocates are hoping that the Vatican will use this opportunity to build on the pope’s recent comments regarding condoms.

Today marks the start of a Vatican conference on HIV and AIDS. Organized by the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers, the conference, entitled “Toward an Equitable and Human Health Care,” is bringing together experts for a two-day symposium on preventing HIV and caring for those who are living with the virus.  Some HIV-prevention advocates are hoping that the Vatican will use this opportunity to build on the pope’s recent comments regarding condoms. Catholics for Choice and its Condoms4Life campaign will greet participants with an ad in Saturday’s Corriere della Sera, Rome’s prominent daily newspaper.  The ad reads, in part: 

We believe in God.

We believe that sex is sacred.

We believe in caring for each other.

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We believe in using condoms.

We thank Pope Benedict for acknowledging that condoms save lives. 

The ad refers to comments that Pope Benedict XVI made in November 2010 during an interview with a German author for the book Light of the World. In the interview, Benedict said condoms were not “a real or moral solution” to the AIDS epidemic, which “can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.” But he added that “there may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility.”

AIDS activists hailed the comments as a possible start of the Vatican loosening its prohibition of condoms as part of HIV-prevention efforts.  In a statement at the time, Michel Sidibé, the executive director of UNAIDS said: “This move recognizes that responsible sexual behavior and the use of condoms have important roles in HIV prevention.” Some, however, felt the pope’s words were misconstrued and worried that they would be inaccurately interpreted as an official change to church policy regarding condoms for disease prevention and birth control. The Vatican quickly backed away from the comments and issued numerous clarifications including one in December 2010 that read, in part:  “The idea that anyone could deduce from the words of Benedict XVI that it is somehow legitimate, in certain situations, to use condoms to avoid an unwanted pregnancy is completely arbitrary and is in no way justified either by his words or in his thought.”

Despite these clarifications, AIDS advocates feel that the pope’s comments opened the possibility of a new dialogue and are urging the attendees at this weekend’s conference to take advantage of the opportunity.  Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, told conference attendees in a statement: “Your mission has clearly been expanded since the pope’s recent acknowledgement that condoms do help save lives….”  He went on to say that since the pope’s comments “conservatives within the church have worked to try and muddy this clarity,” and warn Catholic health workers to resist these efforts to “hijack progress.” 

O’Brien concluded:  “It is vital for attendees to illuminate this weekend’s conference with a progressive vision of Catholic health care. The needs of people living with HIV and AIDS, their families and their communities will never come second in any ‘equitable and human’ solution.”

Commentary Religion

It’s Pope Francis Who Should Apologize on Abortion

Erin Matson

With his latest comments, Pope Francis has built a shiny new smokescreen to distract from the grave and immoral harms caused by the Vatican's opposition to abortion and women's equality.

Pope Francis has a limited-time offer just for women who have abortions: Confess, and you won’t be excommunicated. Hurry! Only women who confess to a priest before November 20, 2016—during the “Year of Mercy”—will remain eligible to kneel and pray at the instruction of an all-male hierarchy that insists upon the subordination of women.

“I am well aware of the pressure that has led [women who have abortions] to this decision,” the Pope said. He suggested women “believe they have no other option.” Priests will have the “discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it.”

It seems the Pope Francis Sex TalkTM brand is expanding. With his latest comments, Pope Francis has built a shiny new smokescreen to distract from the grave and immoral harms caused by the Vatican’s opposition to abortion and women’s equality.

This has practically become a formula: Cool Pope says something that sounds like he cares about the huge swaths of people routinely discriminated against by the biggest patriarchy in the world for being women, gay, or unwilling to have children. But the doctrine doesn’t change, which means that nice comments don’t make for nice policy. Lobbyists representing the Catholic Church’s leadership continue to wreak great destruction around the world, whether messing with the Affordable Care Act at home or insisting on denying condoms to people in AIDS-ravaged areas abroad. And billions of public dollars are funneled into Catholic institutions that insist they have a right to discriminate on the taxpayer dole.

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His latest ploy on abortion is more of the same. Yes, people love Pope Francis and his tone is different and refreshing. Many may also find his pastoral approach comforting. But although we need to start somewhere, we also need to look at the bigger picture. The Pope’s comments are just stigma masquerading as understanding.

A woman who has had an abortion has done nothing wrong. She doesn’t need to apologize, and she certainly doesn’t need to apologize to a man representing an institution that denies her equality. (Remember when Pope Benedict compared the ordination of women to pedophilia? Pope Francis has enforced the same toxic nonsense about keeping women out of the priesthood; he just says things that make it sound nicer.) So, then, this isn’t actually about reassuring women who have had abortions. This is about continuing to single them out and shame them.

In the context of women’s lives, access to abortion is a matter of human dignity. And that dignity includes being trusted to make moral decisions—such as the one to end a pregnancy—for ourselves. Any outsider looking in who thinks he knows better is frankly sexist, drawing upon awful ideas that women are too stupid and wicked to be trusted with the management of our own lives. Preventing a woman’s access to abortion through advocating for restrictions upon reproductive care, as the Vatican does, is immoral.

A few weeks ago I helped to transport an abortion fund patient from a clinic to a hotel room. Prior to her procedure, she’d been growing frustrated with the several weeks it was taking to raise the money, find someone to watch her kids, and manage travel to another city where abortion is available after the first trimester. She’d started to wonder openly if she could “do something’” to force a miscarriage at home. This is how a great variety of piecemeal abortion restrictions—funding restrictions, TRAP laws, waiting periods, bans on specific procedures—work together to put woman in potential danger. (Or serve time in prison for trying to take matters into their own hands.)

Women who decide to have abortions will have abortions, and the question is merely if we want them to be safe. Should the woman I met have put herself at risk from an illegal abortion instead? Or found herself in handcuffs, like Kenlissia Jones? We don’t know: Unfortunately, Pope Francis hasn’t issued statements on the dire need to replace illegal abortion with safe abortion, or the criminalization of pregnancy outcomes; he just wants women to apologize to priests.

Pope Francis has it all wrong on abortion. The Catholic Church’s leaders owe women a profound apology.

It is thanks to the Vatican’s terrible rules against reproductive health care that a woman in California was nearly driven to travel 160 miles away from her family to give birth, because her local “pro-life” Catholic hospital initially refused to give her a tubal ligation after a planned cesarean section. It is in the name of “a Catholic country” that women like Savita Halappanavar have been forced to die after begging for life-saving abortions. Some advocates even argue that it is in anticipation of the Pope’s visit and in deference to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that President Obama has continued his bad legacy on reproductive rights by failing to take executive action that would extend abortion funding to rape victims in war zones.

In 2010, Sister Margaret McBride was excommunicated for authorizing a life-saving abortion at a Phoenix hospital. Is Pope Francis really telling her, and the woman whose life she helped to save, that they are the ones who committed evil and need to come back and apologize?

Maybe the better thing would be for Pope Francis to listen. That’s why my organization, Reproaction, has launched a #HeyPopeFrancis campaign that invites people to tell Pope Francis what they think he should do next. The responses so far have been varied and creative; many folks are concerned by the Vatican’s stance against abortion, contraception, and women’s ordination, and take exception to Pope’s statements about LGBTQ families. Still others are urging him to do even more on the environment and immigration. The bottom line is that this Pope is presenting himself as an agent of hope and changeand it’s now on all of us to share with him our hopes for meaningful change.

This is 2015. Women are human beings. They have dignity, and they must be respected. Women must be treated as equals, and there is no such thing as equality without easy access to abortion. If we are to have a just society that upholds its moral obligation to ensure no one is held back on the basis of gender, abortion must be accessible and funded for every person who needs it—no harassment, stigma, or “religious liberty” attached. And if you think equality for women makes sense so long as women abstain from sex or are willing to accept the “consequences” of pregnancy, then you don’t believe in equality for women. That’s wrong, and it’s that simple.

Rather than a call to confession about abortion, it would be far more redemptive for Pope Francis to call for a new dialogue within the Catholic Church about gender equality that would elevate the voices of a diverse group of women—including women who have had abortions, women who aren’t sorry about their abortions, and, oh yeah, women priests. That would represent major progress too.

News Contraception

Pope Francis’ Remarks About Birth Control ‘Methods’ Offend Pro-Choice Catholics

Martha Kempner

While his off-the-cuff comments may have garnered chuckles from some people, many others are offended and point to the Church’s central role in denying women access to birth control.

Pope Francis, on his way home from his visit to the Philippines this week, raised eyebrows when he said that Catholics don’t have to have so many children: “Some think, excuse me if I use the word, that in order to be good Catholics, we have to be like rabbits, but no.”

While his off-the-cuff comments may have garnered chuckles from some people, many others are offended and point to the Church’s central role in denying women access to birth control.

Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, said the comments were anything but amusing.

“There’s no doubt that bunnies are furry, cuddly, and comedic. When you start talking about it, it’s sort of hilarious. But Catholics the world over have had to suffer discrimination and prejudice because of the idea that we can’t control our fertility,” O’Brien said in an interview with Rewire. “I think that the Pope’s remarks were offensive. I don’t think he says them with malice. I think the problem for Pope Francis is that he has a blind spot in relation to women.

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The Pope’s comments were said in reference to a woman he had met on the trip who has had seven cesarean sections and is now risking her life to have an eighth child. The Pope called this an example of “irresponsibility” and said that though the woman might argue that she had trusted in God, she’d be wrong.

“But God gives you methods to be responsible,” he said.

O’Brien said he was upset by the accusatory nature of those remarks: “To have Pope Francis pointing a finger as if to say that women are feckless and irresponsible is awful,” O’Brien said. “How dare he talk about this woman like that. Women have had to carry a huge burden in the Catholic Church because of an intransigent hierarchy that has waged war on contraception. Women have died.”

The Pope essentially suggested that this woman had had too many children. He went on to say that three children was the ideal number to demonstrate responsible parenting because it assured re-population.

O’Brien found these comments disrespectful of women and couples “who in good conscience are deciding how many children they should have.”

O’Brien and others noted that the Pope’s comments are particularly disturbing given that he was leaving the Philippines, a country that has used the Church’s doctrine against birth control to significantly restrict access to family planning, especially for poor women.

Emily Rauhala, a correspondent for TIME, has been following the politics of birth control in the Philippines for many years. She wrote:

The Philippines’ Catholic hierarchy has fought long and hard to restrict access to prophylactics. Over the past few decades, as most countries embraced family planning, the Philippines has moved in the opposite direction, discouraging the use of contraception and prohibiting abortion under any circumstance. They cast condom use as anti-Catholic and anti-Filipino, insisting that couples ought to use “natural methods.”

In fact, the Catholic Church in the Philippines has successfully fought a bill to help poor women access contraception. Even after the bill passed, the Church continued to fight it by involving the courts and challenging the law’s constitutionality.

Still, Pope Francis was confident that Catholics could control the number of children they have while sticking to the rules of the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, which prohibits use of any modern methods of contraception.

“This is why there are marriage support groups in the Church with people who are experts on such issues. And there are pastors and I know that there are many acceptable solutions that have helped with this,” he said.

Presumably the Pope was pointing to natural family planning, which requires tracking a woman’s cycle and remaining abstinent on her most fertile days. O’Brien thinks this is ridiculous.

“Everyone knows that natural family planning is a phenomenal failure,” he said, pointing out that Catholic women with options choose anything else.

In fact, 99 percent of Catholic women in the United States have used modern methods of contraception. Perhaps so that they didn’t have to breed like bunnies.