The Catholic Church and women's health: Will a new Pope bring change?

With the resignation of Pope Benedict, does that mean there will be real change in areas where the Catholic Church is seen to be at odds even with its own people?  Paedophile priests aside, I wish to focus on the attitude of the church toward women, their health needs, and in particular contraception and abortion. There have been recent events in Europe regarding these issues which are worth discussing.

Jackie Jones, writing for the Irish Times, wrote of her disapproval of a custom in Ireland, a country with strong Catholic traditions, where medical professionals address women patients as “mother”. Catholic bishops have spoken about their “two-patient model” regarding maternity services in which mother and child are treated as one unit.  Jones’ objection is that referring to a woman as “mother” means treating that woman as a role rather than as a person; it implies that women are for breeding, and cannot be considered in separation from that role. Such a stance skews any possible discussion on abortion: “Women have the right to be treated as equal, responsible, capable human beings, independent of any roles they may assume. Women are entitled to medical services in their own right, including abortion.”

Ireland is not the only country in Europe where Catholic views have conflicted with the health needs of women. As reported by Der Spiegel in January of this year, certain Catholic hospitals in Germany refused to examine a rape victim. The case was reported by an emergency centre doctor who treated a 25-year-old woman suspected of being the victim of a date-rape drug.  After prescribing the ‘morning after pill’, the doctor contacted two Catholic hospitals, and both hospitals refused to provide the gynaecological examination requested by the doctor and the woman. This refusal was given because Catholic hospitals do not want to be in the position of having to advise victims of rape regarding possible unwanted pregnancies. The case caused uproar in the community, and a defensive reaction by the Catholic Church at the time.

Following that case, as reported recently by the Washington Post, German bishops have now agreed that emergency contraception may be prescribed by Catholic hospitals to rape victims. However, the newly stated stance on this issue only covers contraception designed to prevent conception through, for example, impeding sperm from reaching the egg or preventing ovulation. Catholic hospitals are still forbidden from using drugs which work through interception, dislodging or otherwise affecting an already fertilized egg, in line with the Church’s position that life begins at conception. The Church also stressed that rape victims may receive “human, medical, psychological and pastoral help in Catholic hospitals”, so long as that help does not involve any method that results in the death of the embryo.

Despite this small concession on behalf of the Catholic Church regarding contraception, the Church is still actively pursuing its anti-abortion stance in Europe, lobbying for law changes within the European Union. There is a campaign called “One of Us”, launched in January of this year, calling for countries within the European Union to cease funding of any research and services with respect to abortion, and stem-cell research involving the destruction of human foetuses.  This is a follow-up on a European Court of Justice ruling from 2011 that human life begins at conception and deserves legal protection. Currently few countries in the Union have policies in line with the 2011 ruling of the European Court of Justice, and many provide funding to scientific research and international women’s services that include offering abortions. The Catholic Church wishes to change this situation and is using every means at its disposal to attempt to do so. 

While many may be hoping that the resignation of the Pope might allow for a new direction in the Church, one which may address areas where Church doctrine conflicts with the wishes of its own followers and especially the needs of women, they will likely be disappointed.  The concession by German bishops to allow non-abortive contraception in the case of rape is a small one, and while positive, does not address the needs of women enough.  If non-abortive contraception is now OK in the case of rape, then why shouldn’t condoms or the pill also be OK in general? This, as well as seeking to ban funding for scientific research and support services in areas which may benefit women’s health and well-being, makes it clear that the health needs of women remain secondary in the eyes of the Catholic Church, and that this attitude is unlikely to change dramatically in the near future.