A Callous and Coercive Policy
Frances Kissling
Religion News Service, May 24, 1999

As if things were not grim enough for Kosovar refugees, officials in the Roman Catholic church are now trying to deny emergency contraception to women who have been raped in the crisis. These church leaders have attempted to justify this position, but their arguments are far from convincing. They attempt to deflect criticism by pointing to the many admirable efforts the Vatican makes on the part of all refugees. This, however, demonstrates the blind spot most church leaders have when it comes to women. This issue is not about all refugees—it is about women. And with Vatican leadership, the Roman Catholic church is among the harshest and most punishing of religions when it comes to understanding and respecting women’s rights and needs.

No more graphic example of that lack of understanding can be found than the message Pope John Paul II sent to Bosnian Muslim women who had been raped during the 1993 conflict. The pope urged them to turn their rape into an act of love and "accept the enemy into them," making him "flesh of their own flesh" by carrying their pregnancies to term.

Some church leaders have characterized the distribution of the "morning-after pill" in Kosovo as "massive,"—a questionable claim. If it were indeed necessary to provide massive distribution of morning-after pills, the church should be decrying the "massive" incidence of rape of women in that conflict. And, rather than giving raped women inaccurate information about what constitutes a pregnancy or characterizing aid workers as perpetrators of violence for offering voluntary emergency contraception, the church would do better if it respected both the conscience and moral capacity of women, including women who have been raped. Women can and do make good decisions about when and whether to bring new life into the world. Moreover, moral and policy discourse would be advanced if the church were able to acknowledge that these situations are morally complex, rife with respectable but differing views on reproductive biology and moral rights and responsibilities.

No one is suggesting, as some church leaders intimate, that emergency contraception will "minimize the horror" of rape. There is no quick cure, medical or otherwise, for the devastation experienced by women who have been raped. Emotional recovery is long and painful, if ever fully achieved. Rather, for those raped women who choose to take it, this "after-the-fact" contraceptive method merely saves them from becoming pregnant with their rapist’s progeny. Few women, even those in stable and supportive circumstances, feel they have the emotional resources to continue such a pregnancy. To ask—no, to force—a women raped in war, exiled and with an uncertain future to continue such a pregnancy is callous beyond belief. Let us not mince words, denying emergency contraception to women who have been raped is as coercive as the practice of forced abortion reported in China which church leaders criticize so vehemently.

Seemingly at the heart of the Vatican’s opposition to emergency contraception are its continued claims in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary—that emergency contraception causes an abortion. For the record, such experts as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists say that pregnancy starts when a fertilized ovum implants in the lining of the uterus, about six days after fertilization. Emergency contraception, which is simply two double doses of regular birth control pills taken twelve hours apart, works best immediately after unprotected sex and is effective only up to seventy-two hours after coitus. It is not prescribed for women who are already pregnant. It works by either preventing the release of an egg from the ovaries, blocking sperm from fertilizing an egg, or preventing implantation. While it is true that in some instances, emergency contraception will act on fertilized, but not yet implanted ova, there are few among us who would consider the primitive, microscopic cells present at that stage the moral equivalent of the raped woman.

Lost in the Vatican’s defense of its position is the fact that it still opposes contraception of any kind. Church officials have failed to convince Catholics that contraceptive use—even for married couples—is immoral, and Catholics now use contraception as much as the rest of the population. But church authorities have turned to the public policy arena to stem the availability of contraception. Roman Catholic bishops throughout the world are vocal and consistent opponents of both domestic and international family planning programs. At the United Nations, Vatican officials use the church’s official governmental status—which no other religion has—to block programs and policies that would make voluntary contraception more accessible in the poorest parts of the world.

Now it pushes that untenable position into the Kosovar conflict, where rape is a brutal weapon of systematic ethnic hatred. For these raped women, claims that the Vatican is acting "lovingly," as one bishop put it, by working to deny them the choice of emergency contraception would be laughably ironic if its consequences were not so dreadful.