On Monday, Pope Francis made quite a remarkable statement in beseeching Catholics to speak of “responsible parenthood.” He continued, “Some think that- excuse the word- in order to be good Catholics we have to be like rabbits. No.”
What great news for Catholic families, right? Not so fast.
While Francis seems to be condoning the practice of couples making a deliberate choice to limit the number of children they have, he still firmly upholds the Church’s prohibition on the use of artificial contraception outlined in the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae. According to Francis, “this is clear and that is why in the church there are marriage groups, there are experts in this matter, there are pastors.” In his view, God gives [parents] methods to be responsible” and couples should rely on natural family planning.
Considering that Pope Francis has wanted to make the poor a central focus of his papacy, I cannot help but be extremely disappointed in his remarks. Family planning has often been considered a feminist issue and rightly so, in that it helps move beyond the idea that a woman’s role in life is simply to be the bearer of children, regardless of what this does to her physical or emotional health. However, family planning is also very much an economic issue. Of course, it cannot be denied that feminist issues and economic issues are constantly intertwined, as sexism, racism, and other forms of discrimination are directly related to poverty.
First of all, as a woman, I find it troubling that celibate males continue to be the only authorities in the Church who dictate Catholic teaching. These men have never experienced life in a woman’s body, yet they seem to consider themselves experts on this topic. While natural family planning may be a successful solution for some couples, it is not applicable to all women. Not all women have regular menstrual cycles, due to a variety of factors including genetics or certain medical conditions. Yet, even for women with cycles which are not irregular, ovulation does not occur at the same time each month and no woman’s menstrual cycle is identical from month to month. The rhythm method has an average failure rate of 13-20%.
Now, wait a minute. If the failure rate is 13-20%, that means the success rate is 80-87%. Not bad, some may say. And for some couples, those statistics may be comforting enough. For the healthy man and woman who both have secure jobs with benefits, a large home, and the money to hire a nanny for the three children they already have, adding a fourth might not be such a frightening prospect. Sure, it might be tough having another newborn, but they at least have the money to feed and clothe this child, and eventually help him or her through college. This couple also has a low chance of a pregnancy complications. This is not to say that such a couple must or should always be open to more children, but simply that taking their chances with the rhythm method may be easier for them to do than for some other couples.
Not every family is as fortunate to be financially secure. It is estimated that in the United States alone, anywhere from 47-50 million families are living in poverty. This number grows exponentially when taking into account families across the world. This number also increases when considering families who do not meet the standards to be considered impoverished, but are struggling due to a lay-off or disability, or parents who work two or three jobs to stay above poverty level. Taking time off from work to have a child may can be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for many parents. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, women make only 78% for every dollar earned by a man. This gap is even larger for African American and Hispanic women. Yet, women make up half of the work force and are the primary breadwinner in 4 out of 10 American families. Furthermore, the Family and Medical Leave Act only requires companies to provide 12 weeks of unpaid lave for the birth or adoption of a child if those companies have 50 more more employees and an employee has worked at the company for at least a year.
Besides financial problems, some couples also struggle with mental or physical health issues. Pregnancy affects all women differently. Even though I have never been pregnant myself, I have known many people who have and hearing their experiences proves the preceding statement is true. Some women will experience very little pain throughout their pregnancy, while other women have complications that result in being put on bed rest, or they struggle with depression. Some women are even told after giving birth not to have any more children, as this could put them in danger of serious health issues and may even cause death. Suddenly, when the entire family’s well-being is at stake, 80-87% success rate is just not enough.
Artificial methods of contraception, in particular the pill and IUD, have success rates close to 99%, and are a safer option for women with menstrual irregularities. Furthermore, some women chose to use birth control pills for reasons other than contraception. They are often necessary for women with painful menstrual cycles, an experience for which the Magisterium cannot claim to know firsthand. They also protect against some forms of cancer. Sadly, birth control is still unaffordable and inaccessible for many women, even after the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
Wait a minute. If some couples are truly unable to have another child, shouldn’t they avoid intercourse? Some may say so. However, love happens across economic boundaries. Why should a couple who is less financially well-off not be able to express their mutual love and affection for one another? Is sexual intercourse only for the economically and socially privileged?
Finally, Catholic couples are finding through their own personal experience that use of contraception does not inhibit their ability to be loving disciples of Jesus Christ. In 1963, Pope John XXIII established the Papal Commission on Birth Control. In 1966, this commission released its majority report, which saw the use of artificial contraception as a valid extension of natural family planning, “for it is natural to man to use his skill in order to put under human control what is given by physical nature.”
Pope Paul VI’s ultimately rejected the commission’s position, by maintaing the Church’s ban on artificial forms of contraception in his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae. It is now 2015, and so may devoted Catholics are still made to feel ashamed for making the reproductive health decisions that are best suited to their particular situations. Pope Francis, if you truly care about the poverty and oppression, will you please step up and listen to Catholic families, and in particular, Catholic women?