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Exception to birth control ban raises questions

NCR Staff

A Spanish bishop raised eyebrows in late January by stating that religious women living in war zones or other places where there is danger of rape can legitimately use oral contraceptives to protect themselves from pregnancy.

Despite skeptical reactions from some quarters, one of Rome’s foremost Catholic moral theologians says the bishop did nothing more than re-state official church policy that dates back at least 40 years.

The Catholic church generally bans the use of contraceptives on the grounds that human sexuality should be “open” to the creation of life.

Despite that position, Bishop Juan Antonio Reig Pla of Segorbe-Castellón said in late January that sisters who face a danger of rape, such as missionaries in war zones, may use the pill as “self-defense against an act of aggression,” according to the Madrid-based newspaper El País.

Reig, president of the Family and Life subcommittee of the Spanish bishops’ conference, was speaking at a news conference to promote a Feb. 4 “day in defense of life.”

Reig said use of contraception by religious women as a defense against rape “changes the nature of the moral act,” rendering it no longer an illicit attempt to “go against conception.” Reig declined, according to the report, to say whether other Catholic women should be able to use birth control in the same context.

Media outlets around the world immediately began asking church officials for comment, in most cases eliciting dubious responses.

A spokesperson for the Irish bishops, for example, told a reporter, “As far as we’re concerned, there has been no dispensation given by the Vatican. And until we hear differently, we’ll continue to follow the official line, which is the Catholic church officially forbids artificial contraception.”

A spokesperson for the Vatican press office told the London Daily Telegraph that there is no “official dispensation” for nuns.

Yet Redemptorist Fr. Brian Johnstone, an expert in moral theology at Rome’s prestigious Alphonsiana Academy, told NCR that in the early 1960s, the Vatican gave permission for religious women in the Belgian Congo to use contraceptives as a defense against rape.

“It was seen as a protection against pregnancy arising from unwanted, unfree sexual intercourse,” Johnstone said.

Referring to Humanae Vitae, the 1968 document of Pope Paul VI that reiterated the church ban on birth control, Johnstone said the document “prohibits the inhibition of procreation in the context of free sexual intercourse.”

“What happens in rape is not free,” Johnstone said, explaining the logic of the 1960s-era Vatican statement. “It can be regarded as an unjust attack, and thus the woman is justified in using chemical means in repelling the effects of the attack.”

Johnstone noted that although the Vatican exception for the Congo pertained specifically to nuns, from a moral point of view “it makes no difference whatsoever” if the woman is in religious life. Hence, he said, other women in grave danger of rape would have the same liberty.

Johnstone said some moral theologians have applied the Congo precedent in the case of women with a well-founded fear of spousal rape, arguing they too have the right to use contraception.

This is a “conservatively based argument,” Johnstone said, that is generally accepted. “There might be some very rigid people who would oppose it, but if you accept church teaching, it seems quite a reasonable way to settle a conflict situation.”

Johnstone said, however, that fear of rape must be immediate and personal. He said he once worked in a Catholic hospital in Washington, and when women there heard about the Congo precedent, they jokingly suggested that since rape is always theoretically possible in a major city, they should be able to use birth control freely.

“Obviously one has to be careful about how far this goes,” Johnstone said.

The reasoning applies only to the use of oral contraceptives that inhibit a sperm cell from fertilizing an ovum. It does not justify use of the so-called “morning after” pill, Johnstone said, taken after unprotected sexual intercourse to prevent the implantation of an embryo in the uterus.

“At that stage,” Johnstone said, “Catholic teaching holds that you have a human being entitled to the right to life.”

Johnstone acknowledged that this codicil to Catholic moral thought is not well-known.

“Whenever this comes up, I always have trouble convincing people that the Vatican actually said it,” he told NCR. “But it’s there.”

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org.

National Catholic Reporter, February 16, 2001