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Vatican condemns abortion, birth control for refugees


Putting a new exclamation point on a long-held position, the Vatican has again condemned the inclusion of birth control and abortion among services offered to refugees by international aid agencies.

The sharp condemnation of “anti-values” that “offend the dignity of the poorest and most vulnerable populations” came in a multilingual document jointly issued by three curial agencies. This unusual procedure generally signals a matter of strong Vatican interest.

The document, dated Sept. 14, was made public by the Vatican Nov. 8. It was motivated by the 1999 issuance of a field manual for United Nations personnel, published by the United Nations High Commission for Refugee Affairs.

The Vatican asserts that the manual reflects “utilitarian” and “Malthusian” values rooted in “moral and intellectual confusion” about the nature of the human person. “In its attempts to promote individual freedom,” the Vatican says, the manual “neglects corresponding individual and social duties.”

Specifically, the Vatican condemns:

  • The use of “emergency contraception” after forced sexual intercourse, in part because Vatican experts regard the so-called “morning after pill” as a “chemical abortion.” The idea that an embryo is simply “a bunch of cells,” according to the document, is a “sophism … that does not have a precise biological basis.”
  • Other methods of contraception with “a well-known abortive effect,” such as a pill based on progestogens, injectable contraceptives (Depo-Provera), implants (Norplant) and the IUD.
  • Sterilization, “often carried out in poor countries without the victim always being correctly informed.”
  • Separation between sexuality and procreation.
  • Promotion of a “nonjudgmental approach” to extramarital relations and homosexuality. The Vatican criticizes sex education programs in which “boys and girls are introduced into the world of individualistic and irresponsible sexual pleasure, which increases the risk of extending the HIV/AIDS epidemic.”
  • The “ubiquity of condoms in massive quantities,” despite their “not insignificant rate of failure.”
  • The presence in a refugee milieu of equipment that can be used for abortions, especially MVAs, multiple vacuum aspirators.

Though the treatment of these points in the document is unusually extensive, in essence these points reflect longstanding disagreements between the Vatican and international agencies, especially the United Nations, on approaches to the reproductive health of refugees.

In 1993, for example, John Paul II issued a letter to Cardinal Vinko Puljic of Sarajevo, in which the pope rejected suggestions that Bosnian women who had been raped during ethnic conflict in the Balkans should be helped to abort pregnancies.

“With maximum clarity it must be stressed that the child to be born, not having any responsibility for what happened, is innocent and cannot, therefore, in any way be considered an aggressor,” the pope wrote. He called on raped women to “transform the act of violence into an act of love and welcome.”

In 1998, the Vatican in league with Muslim nations successfully resisted efforts to have “enforced pregnancy” defined as a war crime punishable by the new International Criminal Court, fearing that it would lead to assertions of a “right” to abortion.

In 1999, Vatican authorities opposed proposals to distribute the “morning after pill” to rape victims in camps sheltering Albanian refugees during the Kosovo conflict.

The new document “provides good guidance for us,” said William Canny, head of the International Catholic Migration Commission, headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. The commission, sponsored by 65 national bishops’ conferences including the U.S. conference, has 400 employees and is active in at least a dozen nations.

“We certainly will adhere to Catholic social doctrine,” Canny told NCR in a Nov. 14 interview in Rome during an annual meeting of his group’s governing commission. “We won’t distribute birth control.”

At the same time, Canny said, the situations described in the Vatican document simply don’t come up very often.

“Almost half of the refugees in the world are Muslim, and they aren’t pushing birth control,” Canny said. “This won’t be a problem in Pakistan, for example.”

Canny said his field experience is that United Nations personnel don’t distribute birth control devices or provide abortions often. He also said that while his group receives funding from the United Nations, he has never felt pressure to either participate in or condone the provision of these services.

Jesuit Fr. Robert Araujo, professor of law at Gonzaga University who is part of the Vatican delegation to the new International Criminal Court, said disagreements over reproductive issues should not overshadow “a lot of overlap of common interest and cooperation” between Rome and the United Nations.

In an interview with NCR, Araujo cited joint concerns ranging from child nutrition to a ban on land mines.

Araujo said “there will always be disagreement” when U.N. policy runs up against church teaching, but argued that strong Vatican interventions have produced fruits. He said the “Beijing Plus Five” conference in 2000, compared to the U.N. Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, showed “modest improvement in what the Holy See would consider favorable.”

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR’s Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, November 23, 2001