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Using abortion to ban contraception (2014) Using abortion to ban contraception (2014)

The real target of the Vatican's anti-abortion campaign is family planning. The Vatican defines any reliable method of contraception as either "abortion" (the pill) or as "anti-life" (condoms). It's a fancy theology of unrestricted breeding. Yet it didn't have to be this way, and in the 1960s it even looked as if Catholic theology would be interpreted to allow the pill.

 Pope Francis quietly described his strategy to a group of bishops: first talk about "God's love", and only later present "new obligations". [1] These obligations include following Vatican doctrine and even enforcing it, as he made clear in a talk to group of Catholic gynaecologists. These doctors are his medical foot soldiers. They are expected to withhold information about contraception, reject requests for such prescriptions, refuse to perform abortions or sterilisation procedures and even to refer the patient to someone who will. [2] He told them that there had been no change in Church doctrine. [3] Later, for added clarity, he maintained that abortion “cries out in vengeance to God”. [4]

So nothing has changed regarding reproduction, except that this pope is too media savvy to put it bluntly like one of his predecessors. Pius XII, when addressing a group of Catholic midwives, explicitly forbade them to sacrifice the foetus, even in order to save the life of the mother. [5] And this is what Catholic hospitals are also expected to do. When US doctors performed an abortion in 2010 to keep a woman alive, the hospital lost its Catholic affiliation and a nun on the ethics committee was excommunicated. [6]

The advent of the contraceptive pill in the middle of the last century presented the Vatican with a chance to bring its theology more into line with humanity. However, in 1963, the very year John XXIII set up the Birth Control Commission, he removed it from the main debates of the Second Vatican Council in an apparent attempt to control its findings. After his death, Paul VI, expanded the Commission and packed it with conservatives. [7]

When the pill was invented in Massachusetts in the 1950s, it was still illegal to use any form of contraceptive in that state. John Rock, a Boston OB-GYN and a devout Roman Catholic, was selected to conduct some of the first clinical trials, and he quickly became a fan of the new method, seeing no reason it would be inappropriate for Catholic women. He argued that this new method of contraception simply imitated nature by reproducing the pattern of hormones found during breastfeeding, which inhibits conception.

In support of his argument, Rock wrote the 1963 treatise "The Time has Come," subtitled, "A Catholic Doctor's Proposals to End the Battle over Birth Control." There he argued that birth control pills, by suppressing ovulation, were actually more in line with Catholic theology than the rhythm method, since the rhythm method meant that eggs went deliberately unfertilized, whereas with oral contraceptives, there were no eggs.

For a time, it looked as if his arguments might carry the day. The 1960s were a time of re-evaluation in the Roman Catholic Church. Pope John XXIII launched Vatican II and established a Pontifical Commission on Birth Control. In 1966, the commission issued its report, concluding that oral contraceptives were "not intrinsically evil." [...]  But by then, there was a new pope, Paul VI.

Paul VI spent two years deciding whether to accept or reject the commission's findings. In 1968, he issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life). Instead of accepting oral contraceptives as natural and allowing their use, Paul VI concluded that "any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation — whether as an end or as a means," was prohibited for Catholics. Many theologians, priests and, above all, married Catholics rejected Humanae Vitae. John Rock stopped going to Mass. But the archaic ban on contraception remains church doctrine. [8]

It wasn't until more than a decade later that the arguments that may have convinced Paul VI to reject the majority report came to light. This was when the Catholic theologian August Bernhard Hasler leaked the minority report of the Commission which had been written by the Polish archbishop who later became John Paul II. It argues that to life the ban on artificial contraception would threaten acceptance of papal infallibility:

If it should be declared that contraception is not evil in itself, then we should have to concede frankly that the Holy Spirit had been on the side of the Protestant churches in 1930 (when the encyclical Casti Connubii was promulgated), in 1951 (Pius XII’s address to the midwives), and in 1958 (the address delivered before the Society of Hematologists in the year the pope died). It should likewise have to be admitted that for a half a century the Spirit failed to protect Pius XI, Pius XII, and a large part of the Catholic hierarchy from a very serious error. This would mean that the leaders of the Church, acting with extreme imprudence, had condemned thousands of innocent human acts, forbidding, under pain of eternal damnation, a practice which would now be sanctioned. The fact can neither be denied nor ignored that these same acts would now be declared licit on the grounds of principles cited by the Protestants, which popes and bishops have either condemned or at least not approved.” [9]

Since then Pope Paul VI’s 1968 reiteration of Church prohibition against artificial birth control has been considered infallible Catholic doctrine. [10]

This is why contraception continues to be labelled as “fundamentally an anti-life act” [11] and the US Catholic bishops object to it being offered  the employees in Church institutions [12] even though they do not pay for it. [13] And they have managed to block free contraception to employees of businesses, as well, arguing, in effect, that a corporation has a right to conscientious objection. For-profit companies, like people, can now claim religious freedoms under US federal law. [14] As the White House press secretary Josh Earnest said, this means that now “there is a group of women [...] who no longer have access to free contraceptive coverage simply because of some religious views that are held, not by them, but by their bosses,” [15]

It's a more successful strategy to attack abortion than contraception. This is why priests claim that morning-after pills and IUDs are “abortificient”. Vatican envoy Archbishop Zygmunt Zimowski has even told the World Health Organization that emergency contraception is a “direct attack” on the life of “the unborn child”. [16] Apparently the Archbishop knows better than medical authorities in both Europe and the US who say that these methods work by preventing fertilisation. [17]

It has been argued that the American ruling against funding for contraception was a victory for the Vatican's medical obfuscation, since "the Supreme Court ruling gives weight to the argument that morning-after pills and intrauterine devices are more like abortion than contraception." [18]

The Vatican's anti-abortion stance affects women worldwide. And its deliberate conflation of abortion and contraception means that in the following passage "abortion" effectively means "abortion and contraception".

The impact of the Church in the area of abortion is threefold: direct impact on Church members through the condemnation of abortion; indirect impact through political clout which results in legislation criminalising abortion; and indirect impact by preventing Catholic physicians and nurses — especially in Church-run hospitals — from catering to the true needs of the pregnant woman and acting either according to their [own] religious beliefs or simply as per instructions of the Church. [19]

Furthermore, until it becomes politically possible to actually criminalise abortion, the Vatican and its allies are able to do much by restricting it. In the US more state abortion restrictions were enacted in 2011-2013 than in the entire previous decade. [20] This can effectively deny access to for poor women who cannot take time off work or afford the expensive repeat journeys — four of them — for a procedure that can often be done safely and easily by telemedicine. [21].

The Vatican knows that the best way to control a woman is to burden her with more children than she feels able to cope with. Almost a century ago Pope Pius XI stressed that married women must be “fruitful” and “obedient”. [22] Nowadays “fruitfulness” is sometimes called “giving life” and “obedience” in Vatican-speak becomes “true freedom”. Regardless of what they’re called, fruitfulness leads to obedience, as a woman worn out with childbearing will be more docile and her children will serve as hostages. Her inability to leave may even turn into acceptance. Psychologists have found that “the less control people feel over their own lives, the more they come to endorse systems and leaders that offer a sense of order”. [23]

Women pay for Vatican policies with their happiness and health. A 2012 Lancet study shows that giving women the protection they want would save one in every three women who die due to childbearing. Even the present use of contraception was averting 272,000 maternal deaths per year, and making it available to all those who wanted it would save the lives of a further 100,000 women. [24] However, apparently the Vatican doesn't to wish to extend the “right to life” to them.

The Vatican's alliance with the Evangelicals to combat reproductive freedom was first formalised in 2006, is bringing these Protestants ever closer to Vatican doctrine. [25] In 2012 the flagship US Evangelical publication even began to question the morality of contraception, which was noted triumphantly by the main Catholic anti-choice site. The implications are enormous. In the US, in the three years between 2011-2014 there were more abortion restrictions than in the previous decade. [26]

This mirrored the restrictions imposed upon US aid abroad. Long before the closng of many abortion clinics in the US, American aid to family planning groups offering abortion in poor countries had been cut off intermittently since 1984. Known as the "Global gag rule" (or the Mexico City policy), this has badly hampered the work of family-planning groups overseas, since the US has been a major international donor to health clinics in developing countries and to the UN Population Fund. [27] Then in 2017 President Trump expanded the global gag rule, which further increased its "a chilling effect, dampening debate, advocacy, and collaboration around abortion and other sexual and reproductive rights." A "Domestic gag rule" is expected to be introduced in the US in 2019, and it, too, aims to prohibit providers from performing, promoting, referring for, or supporting abortion as a method of family planning. [28]

The anti-choice alliance between the Vatican and an increasing number of other conservative religious groups is proving effective. [29] In 2013 UN leaders were forced to admit that, far from advancing towards the goals of providing for sexual and reproductive rights and comprehensive sex education, in the last two decades “we’ve just been fighting this battle all over again and again”. [30] The Catholic Church is still maintaining that “the very nature of woman... is to be a mother”. [31] Even if it kills her.

The real target of the Vatican's anti-abortion campaign is family planning, just as the real target of its "protection of marriage" is "the belief in and the justification of homosexual identity and love". [32] That's why the passage about gay partnerships in the interim report had to be removed from the final one of the 2014 Synod in Rome. This had noted that they provide "mutual aid that constitute[s] precious support in the life of the partners". [33] Unlimited reproduction must be the ideal. Gay partnerships are to be condemned, as they foster human happiness, rather than serving to increase Church membership. That could give the wrong idea to heteros.

Further reading

“Science Does Not Support Claims That Contraceptives Are ‘Abortion-Inducing’”, New York Times, 2018-09-07.

IN GOOD CONSCIENCE: Conscience Clauses and Reproductive. Rights in Europe—Who Decides? Catholics for Choice, 2010-10-07.


1. “Church must foster encounter with culture, cardinals say”, CNA, 2013-11-21

2. “Defense of conscience critical to pro-life movement, scholar says”, CNA, 2014-01-27

3. “Francis’ Address to Group of Catholic Gynecologists”, Zenit, 2013-09-20

4. “Pope Francis: Abortion ‘cries out in vengeance to God’; Church will never change teaching”, Life Site News, 2013-11-26

5. Pope Pius XII, “Allocution to midwives”, 1951-10-29

6. “Arizona: Hospital Loses Catholic Affiliation”, New York Times, 2010-12-22

7. Jon O'Brien, “To be truly pro-life, the Vatican should lift its contraception ban”, Irish Times, 2008-07-29

8. Malcolm Potts, “The pope, the pill and the court”, Los Angeles Times, 2014-01-30,0,4138959.story

9. Quoted in August Bernhard Hasler, How the Pope Became Infallible, 1981, p. 270.

10. M. R. Gagnebet OP, “The authority of the encyclical Humanae Vitae”, L'Osservatore Romano, 1968-09-12, 19 and 26

11. “Vatican Cardinal: Contraception ‘is fundamentally an anti-life act’”, Life Site News, 2013-06-12. 

12. “US Bishops Vow Continued Fight Against Contraception, Sterilization Mandate”, Zenit, 2013-11-14 

“Philadelphia archdiocese files suit against HHS mandate”,CNA/EWTN News, 2014-06-03

13. “The Affordable Care Act mandates that employer insurance plans cover contraception at no charge. In the case of religious-affiliated nonprofits, the insurance company must provide the coverage directly.”

“Mike Huckabee’s War for Women”, New York Times, 2014-01-24

14. “Prelates Say Religious Freedom Extends to People Who Run Businesses”, Zenit, 2014-01-28

“Obamacare Rebuffed by High Court in Contraception Ruling”, Bloomberg News, 2014-06-30

15. Hobby Lobby ruling draws renewed commitment from Congress, CNA, 2014-07-01

16. “Morning after pill a ‘direct attack’ on the unborn, Holy See delegation tells WHO”, Life Site News, 2013-05-24.

Archbishop Zygmunt Zimowski, “Holy See to World Health Assembly: ‘Totally unacceptable’ to call morning after pill ‘life-saving’”, Life Site News, 2013-05-24.

17. Brief of Amici Curiae Physicians for Reproductive Health, et. al., in Support of Petitioners, Physicians for Reproductive Health, 2013-11-26

p. 11 "The scientific evidence confirms that the FDA-approved forms of emergency contraception are not abortifacients."

“New Birth Control Label Counters Lawsuit Claim”, New York Times, 2013-11-26

18. Aaron E. Carroll, "How Hobby Lobby Ruling Could Limit Access to Birth Control", New York Times, 2014-06-30

19. David Ranan, Double Cross: the Code of the Catholic Church, 2006, p. 290.

20. Heather D. Boonstra and Elizabeth Nash, "A Surge of State Abortion Restrictions Puts Providers—and the Women They Serve—in the Crosshairs", Guttmacher Policy Review, Winter 2014, Volume 17, Number 1.

21. Heather D. Boonstra, "Medication Abortion Restrictions Burden Women and Providers—and Threaten U.S. Trend Toward Very Early Abortion", Guttmacher Policy Review, Winter 2013, Volume 16, Number 1.

22. “Casti Connubii, Encyclical of Pope Pius XI on Christian Marriage”, 1930-12-31.

23. “Why Do People Defend Unjust, Inept, and Corrupt Systems?” Association for Psychological Science, 2011-12-12. 

24. “Study Says Meeting Contraception Needs Could Cut Maternal Deaths by a Third”, New York Times, 2012-07-09.

“Maternal deaths averted by contraceptive use: an analysis of 172 countries”, The Lancet, Volume 380, Issue 9837, Pages 111 - 125, 2012-07-14.

25. “That They May Have Life: A Statement of Evangelicals and Catholics Together”, First Things, October, 2006.

26. “Laws Affecting Reproductive Health and Rights: 2013 State Policy Review“, Guttmacher Institute, January 2014

27. “Evangelical magazine Christianity Today turns critical eye to contraception”, Life Site News, 2012-08-01.

28. “How the global gag rule stifles free speech”, Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, 2019-03-07.

“Millions at risk globally from U.S. abortion 'gag rule': experts”, Reuters, 2018-11-15.

29. “A World of Harm for Women“, Editorial, New York Times, 2012-10-19.

30. “UN Leaders Lament 20-Year Failure to Advance Abortion”, C-Fam, 2013-05-02.

31. (Anti-contraceptive booklet issued to each attendee of the WYD in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 2013) A Student's Guide to Bioethics, Jérôme Lejeune Foundation , 2013, p. 16. 

32. “Protecting marriage isn’t enough – we must oppose gay ‘civil unions’ too”, Life Site News, 2014-09-16

33. “First Synod Report creates a New Gospel: Homosexual Orientation must be ‘valued’ by Church; Homosexual Unions”, 2014-10-13

The phrase is translated at (#52) as “mutual assistance to the point of sacrifice is a valuable support in the life of these persons” in:
Synod14 - Eleventh General Assembly: "Relatio post disceptationem" of the General Rapporteur, Card. Péter ErdÅ‘, 2014-10-13


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