The Vatican Says They Are Pro-Life

Why does their birth control policy seem to say otherwise?

Photo by Chen Hu on Unsplash

This article is the next in a series focusing on the Roman Catholic Church and what it would take — using only methods Jesus would approve of — to convince enough church members (or the right subset of them) to leave the church or withhold enough support to change three key policies with impacts that stretch beyond the church itself and around the globe. Specifically, it’s anti-LGBT policy, anti-birth control policy, and it’s policy of excluding anyone but celibate men from leadership.

This article will focus on the Roman Catholic Church’s extreme view on family planning (which forbids birth control that acts prior to conception except scheduled abstinence), and why it might give a practicing Roman Catholic the motivation to leave or reduce support to the church.

The Vatican’s Policy

The most recent iteration of the policy was issued in 1968 by Pope Paul VI, when the Vatican released the Humanae Vitae, “Of Human Life.” The document addresses birth control policy, saying, “… excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation”. It goes on to say, “it is a serious error to think that a whole married life of otherwise normal relations can justify sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive and so intrinsically wrong.” [1]

Despite the Vatican’s strong language, one study found that 99% of Catholic women who have had sex have used contraception at least once [2]. So the policy has done little to keep many Catholics in the United States from using birth control. On the other hand, to those without the practical and financial means to circumvent the rule, the policy has brought tragic consequences.

The consequences of one bad policy

The problem with the Vatican’s birth control policy is that it creates negative effects that extend far beyond the church. Effects that clearly violate one of the fundamental concepts of the religion — to “love one another.” Effects that lead to the marginalization of specific groups of people, and unnecessary human suffering and death worldwide.

Specifically, the Vatican’s birth control policy:

1. Increases the number of abortions performed.

2. Enables the spread of deadly diseases such as HIV.

3. Directly attacks women’s equality which has damaging effects for all genders.

4. Concentrates the negative effects on groups that have been marginalized in the past

  1. The Vatican’s policy increases the number of abortions performed

In 2015, over 600,000 legal induced abortions occurred in the United States [3]. Various sources suggest that more than 80% of those are the result of unwanted pregnancies [4, 5]. Regardless of where you stand on the issue of abortion, I think many will agree that preventing unwanted pregnancies thru greater access to birth control is preferable to ending those pregnancies through abortion. And the evidence shows that abortion rates go down with greater access to birth control.

A University of Michigan study studying the effects of the Affordable Care Act (which in 2010 increased access to birth control) found that having insurance access dropped the rate of abortions 9 to 14 percent. One might postulate that the reduced number of abortions was due to increased legal restrictions rather than less overall pregnancies, but the researchers found that the birth rate also dropped by 10 percent suggesting it was greater access to contraception, not greater restrictions, driving the change [6].

Other studies found similar results.

A study in the New England Journal of Medicine noted that the proportion of pregnancies that were unintended fell from 51 to 45 percent around the time the ACA was enacted, reversing a slight upward trend in the years preceding it [7].

A more direct example of the phenomenon occurred in Colorado. The state’s Department of Health and Environment found that by providing free birth control to teenagers and low income women, the birth rate for teenage mothers dropped 40 percent and the abortion rate dropped 42 percent over four years [8]. As before, the abortion rate dropped with the birth rate, suggesting less overall pregnancies.

Finally, research at Washington University found that when birth control was free unplanned pregnancies dropped and abortion rates dropped from 62 to 78 percent “compared to the national rate” [9].

It seems clear that there is a strong link between access to contraception and a reduction in the abortion rate, independent of any laws or policies restricting the procedure.

2. Vatican’s policy enables the spread of deadly diseases such as HIV.

The Vatican’s birth control policy has not been restricted to the concept of preventing conception. Since condoms prevent conception, the Vatican also objected to their use in arresting the spread of HIV — with horrific results.

The HIV/AIDS epidemic began to spread within the United States in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. From 1982 to 1988, 48,000 people died from AIDS in the United States [10]. In these early years, when the disease was just starting to spread, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops called condoms “technically unreliable” and “morally unacceptable” [11]. At the local level, Roman Catholic priests sometimes took direct action to discourage or halt the distribution on condoms in some of the hardest hit communities — during a time that those communities referred to as “the plague years” [12]. To put that in perspective, the National Institute of Health (NIH) found that condoms led to a “85 percent decrease in risk of HIV transmission among consistent condom users” [13].

Over the next four years, the number of deaths in the U.S. rose to 181,000 [10] The virus then began spreading throughout the world. By 1990, worldwide deaths worldwide totaled around 300,000 [10]. With the death toll rising, Pope John Paul II traveled to Tanzania. There he gave a speech, in which he said using condoms was a sin under any circumstances. Some said it was the speech that “sentenced millions to die” [15].

In 2001, with deaths from HIV/AIDS still climbing, South African bishops labeled condoms, “an immoral and misguided weapon in our battle against HIV&AIDS.” [10, 14] Two years later, the president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Family, Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, went so far as to suggest that condoms can not prevent transmission of the HIV virus because the virus was smaller than the gaps in the membrane of the condom. The World Health Organization disagreed. The WHO called these statements “dangerous” in the face of “a global pandemic which has already killed more than 20 million people” [17]. In contrast to Cardinal Trujillo’s statements, the CDC wrote, “Laboratory studies have demonstrated that latex condoms provide an essentially impermeable barrier to particles the size of HIV.” They went on to say, “The ability of latex condoms to prevent transmission of HIV has been scientifically established in “real-life” studies of sexually active couples as well as in laboratory studies.” [18]

The Vatican, however, held firm to its anti-condom stance.

By 2005, the worldwide death toll had climbed to more than 2 million deaths annually. [14]

In the face of such devastation, individuals within the church sometimes spoke out, but their statements were quickly retracted or “clarified” by the Vatican. Even the Pope himself was subject to “clarification”. In 2010, Pope Benedict (typically a very conservative voice within the church) wrote that while condoms were not “a real or moral solution,” they could be “a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility.” [19] The Vatican quickly “clarified” the comments of the Pope, reminding everyone that the church’s teaching remained firm [20].

By 2015, the pandemic appeared to be receding, and annual global deaths from HIV/AIDS had fallen to 59% of their peak value. In the United States, new infections were in a steady decline. But the virus had infected a significant proportion of the population in Central and South Africa. Fully 18% of the population aged 15–49 in South Africa, and 23% of the same age group in Botswana was HIV positive [10]. Pope Francis was flying back to the Vatican after a visit to Africa when he was asked about using condoms to slow the spread of HIV/AIDS there. He dodged the question, unwilling or unable to discuss a policy change that could save the lives of numerous men, women and children who remained on the ground in Africa [21].

Local representatives of the church were no more helpful. A struggle between pro-condom activists and the Roman Catholic Church has simmered and boiled over in the past several years amidst the spread of the disease in Africa. One side is represented by a 2015 statement from the Bishops of Africa and Madagascar, who wrote that “The billions of dollars allotted to the production and distribution of condoms and contraceptives and to the establishment of sex-education programs that do not respect universal moral norms are a scandal that cries to heaven for vengeance” [16, 22].

The other side of the struggle is embodied by people like Caroline Osogo, a former nun in Africa, who now advocates for condom use to slow the spread of disease. Osogo said,

“HIV/AIDS has cleared families, and all we have left are graves of parents and orphaned children fending for themselves. With no breadwinners, the children are turning to prostitution due to poverty. In the process, they also die of HIV/AIDS. The church has to look at the issue differently. Even priests and nuns are dying of HIV/AIDS.” [23]

Given the statements from well respected authorities such as the CDC, NIH and WHO, one can see that the Vatican’s consistent fight against the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV (from the earliest days of the pandemic) has almost certainly enabled the disease to spread, and in doing so led to untold and unnecessary suffering and death.

3. The Vatican’s policy directly attacks women’s equality which has damaging effects for all genders

“Love one another” suggests equality. It doesn’t say love some people more (or less).

When given the freedom to use it and the means to access it, a significant amount of women choose to utilize birth control.

A study by the Guttmacher Institute found that within the United States, “99% of women aged 15–44 who have ever had sexual intercourse have used at least one contraceptive method” [2].

Cost and access are barriers to the use of birth control.

The effects can be seen in rate of contraceptive use among different groups. In contrast to the numbers in the United States, the WHO found that modern contraceptive methods were used by only 43% reproductive age overall in developing countries, with a large disparity “between the highest and lowest wealth quintiles (52% versus 35%, respectively)” [24].

Access to birth control affects women’s education and career development.

Access to contraception has been linked to positive outcomes for women with respect to both education and employment. Research by the Guttmacher Institute found that both have been “linked to the increased numbers of college-educated women pursuing advanced professional degrees and making up increased proportions of such degree programs” and “access to contraception has significantly contributed to increasing women’s earning power and to decreasing the gender gap in pay” [25].

Access to birth control affects equality.

At the end of the day, it would seem that access to birth control not only promotes equality in education and pay, it also promotes women’s equality in their personal lives. By decoupling sex from pregnancy, it allows women the sexual freedom that men have always had and women have always deserved. That’s good for everyone.

4. The Vatican’s policy concentrates the negative effects on groups that have been marginalized in the past

The Vatican’s birth control policy concentrates the negative effects on specific groups. Many Roman Catholics in the United States are able to simply ignore the policy, since they have access to birth control and the means to pay for it.

But without access and means, the full effect of these policies can be disastrous.

UNAIDS noted that “The risk of acquiring HIV is 27 times higher among men who have sex with men, 23 times higher among people who inject drugs, 13 times higher for female sex workers and 13 times higher for transgender women” [26].

That means that these groups, many of whom the Vatican has historically disparaged and labeled with words like “disordered” and “depraved”, are disproportionately affected by the Vatican’s anti-condom policy.

In many developing countries, where the Vatican is even more influential in politics, the problem is magnified. In 2017, 800,000 of the 1.8 million new infections worldwide and 380,000 of the 940,000 deaths worldwide occurred in Eastern and Southern Africa. 92,000 of those newly infected were 14 years old or younger [26].

The bishops of Kenya noticed the increasing rate of infection. Their response: “The use of condoms is immoral and is not one of the ways we would embrace in our campaigns. The biblical teachings we share are enough to guide what the society needs to do” [27].

So is the Vatican pro-life?

Not to those children in Eastern and Southern Africa. Not to unborn children. Not to those most at risk for HIV. Not to women, who deserve equal rights. Not to the many groups it has marginalized for being too different or too poor to choose a better option. Not to those who must deal with the consequences of these policies.

Are you pro-life?

Vote with your wallet. Vote with your feet. Force the Vatican to change.

[1] Paul VI. “Humanae Vitae”. Libreria Editrice Vaticana, July 28, 1968, http://w2.vatican.va/content/paul-vi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-vi_enc_25071968_humanae-vitae.html

[2] Guttmacher Institute, “Contraceptive Use in the United States”. Guttmacher Institute, https://www.guttmacher.org/fact-sheet/contraceptive-use-united-states

[3] Centers For Disease Control and Prevention. “Reproductive Health, Data And Statistics”. Division of Reproductive Health, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, January 16, 2019, https://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/data_stats/index.htm

[4] “Reasons U.S. Women Have Abortions”, Guttmacher Institute, Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, Volume 37, Number 3, Sept 2005, https://www.guttmacher.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/tables/370305/3711005t3.pdf

[5] “Reported Induced Terminations of Pregnancy (ITOP) by Reason, by Trimester, 2019 — Year To Date”, State of Florida, Agency for Health Care Administration, Apr 3, 2019, http://ahca.myflorida.com/MCHQ/Central_Services/Training_Support/docs/TrimesterByReason2019.pdf

[6] Abramowitz,Joelle, Ph.D., M.A. “ Access to birth control through ACA drives down abortion rate”. Michigan News, Nov 15, 2017, https://ihpi.umich.edu/news/access-birth-control-through-aca-drives-down-abortion-rate

[7] Finer, Lawrence B., Zolna, Mia R., “Declines in Unintended Pregnancy in the United States, 2008–2011”. The New England Journal of Medicine, Massachusetts Medical Society, Mar 3, 2016, https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMsa1506575

[8] Tavernise, Sabrina., “Colorado’s Effort Against Teenage Pregnancies Is a Startling Success”, New York Times, July 5, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/06/science/colorados-push-against-teenage-pregnancies-is-a-startling-success.html

[9] Williams, Diane Duke, “Access to free birth control reduces abortion rates”, Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, October 12, 2012, https://medicine.wustl.edu/news/access-to-free-birth-control-reduces-abortion-rates/

[10] “HIV and AIDS — — United States, 1981–2000”, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Jun 1, 2001, https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5021a2.htm

[11] “Humanae Vitae at 50: the Damage Done”, Catholics for Choice, Jul 2018, http://www.catholicsforchoice.org/humanae-vitae/report/humanae-vitae-aids-epidemic/

[12] Finn, J., “The Catholic Church’s Fight Against HIV Education”, Medium, Mar 18, 2019, https://medium.com/james-finn/the-catholic-churchs-fight-against-hiv-education-482b35e73be

[13] “Scientific Review Panel Confirms Condoms Are Effective Against HIV/AIDS, But Epidemiological Studies Are Insufficient for Other STDs”, Source: Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), Jul 20, 2001, https://aidsinfo.nih.gov/news/562/scientific-review-panel-confirms-condoms-are-effective-against-hiv-aids--but-epidemiological-studies-are-insufficient-for-other-stds

[14] Roser, M., Ritchie, H., “HIV / AIDS”. Our World in Data, Apr 2018, https://ourworldindata.org/hiv-aids

[15] Clayton, J. “John Paul’s 1990 speech ‘sentenced millions to die’” Times (UK), March 18, 2009, https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/69070

[16] “Common Declaration of the Bishops of Africa and Madagascar”, Aleteia, Jun 11, 2015, https://aleteia.org/common-declaration-of-the-bishops-of-africa-and-madagascar/

[17] Bradshaw, S. “Vatican: condoms don’t stop Aids”. The Guardian, Oct 9, 2003, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2003/oct/09/aids

[18] “Fact Sheet for Public Health Personnel”. National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Mar 5, 2013, https://www.cdc.gov/condomeffectiveness/latex.html

[19] Eichler, A., “What Pope Benedict XVI Did and Didn’t Say About Condoms”, The Atlantic, Nov 22, 2010, https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2010/11/what-pope-benedict-xvi-did-and-didn-t-say-about-condoms/343320/

[20] Hooper, J. “Pope Benedict edges away from total ban on use condoms”, The Guardian, Nov 21, 2010, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/nov/21/pope-benedict-edges-away-ban-condoms

[21] “Pope Francis indicates little concern over condom use in fight against Aids”, Associated Press, The Guardian, Nov 30, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/nov/30/pope-francis-condoms-aids-hiv-africa

[22] Atieno, W. “Bishops say no to condom use, insist on abstinence”, Daily Nation, Oct 3, 2018, https://www.nation.co.ke/news/Bishops-say-no-to-condom-use/1056-4788664-sjwp0r/index.html

[23] Muendo, L., “Pro-condom activists in Kenya push back against church’s teaching of abstinence”, National Catholic Reporter, Mar 12, 2016, https://www.ncronline.org/news/world/pro-condom-activists-kenya-push-back-against-churchs-teaching-abstinence

[24] Creanga, A, Gillesppie, D., Karklins, S. Tsui, A. “Low use of contraception among poor women in Africa: an equity issue”, Bulletin of the World Health Organization, Volume 89, Number 4, April 2011, p. 241–316. https://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/89/4/10-083329/en/

[25] Sonfield, A., Hasstedt, K., Kavanaugh, M. and Anderson, R. “The Social and Economic Benefits of Women’s Ability To Determine Whether and When to Have Children”, Guttmacher Institute, Mar 2013, https://www.guttmacher.org/sites/default/files/report_pdf/social-economic-benefits.pdf

[26] “Fact Sheet — World AIDS Day 2018”. UNAIDS, Dec 1, 2018, http://www.unaids.org/sites/default/files/media_asset/UNAIDS_FactSheet_en.pdf

[27] “Kenya bishops reject condoms in fight against HIV/AIDS”. Crux, Oct 11, 2018, https://cruxnow.com/church-in-africa/2018/10/11/kenya-bishops-reject-condoms-in-fight-against-hiv-aids/

Husband. Dad to two kids and four dogs. Trying to become more authentic and less afraid.

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