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Karol Wojtyla

Reproductive Rights

Karol Wojtyla

Pope – President-for-life of the Roman Catholic Church and the Vatican mini-state.

Born on 18 May 1920 in Wadowice, Poland; educated at Jagielloncia University in Cracow and the Angelicum in Rome. Ordained as a priest in 1946, he was Professor of Moral Theology at the Universities of Cracow and Lublin between 1953 and 1958. He became Archbishop of Cracow in 1963 and was made a cardinal in 1967. In October 1978 he was elected Pope and took the name John Paul II.

Prosecutor’s notes to the team:
This is the Big One. This is why the newspaper commentators are already writing the obituaries for this court. How could we have been so insane as to challenge a representative of God? Isn’t this hubris of the highest order which invites the most precipitous fall from grace?

They may be right. But our brief was to take on the cases that no national court could deal with, to act in the interests of humanity in general. And who else is going to challenge a Pope? Still, if any of you are harbouring dark doubts about participating in this one you’d better let me know before we walk into that courtroom. I’ll understand.

We can’t just wait for him to pass on and for a more sensible Catholic leader to emerge. After all, the next Pope could be even worse – the Archbishop of Bologna, for whom John Paul has a soft spot, is thought to be in the running, and he likes to bait Italy’s liberal press with blasts against gays, feminists, AIDS victims, unwed mothers and pro-choice activists. He once likened ordaining women as priests to celebrating Communion with Coca-Cola.

Whenever I considered dropping this case I thought of all those people we called as witnesses who told us of the pain caused them by the deadening hand of the Vatican. At first they were eager to talk, to give their pent-up anger a productive outlet. But time and again, after sleepless nights of guilt and fear, they would withdraw – Catholic education bites deep, even in those who have long ago rejected it.

We owe it to them to proceed – owe it to all those who screamed but could not give us their names.

[image, unknown] Denial of fundamental human rights through the continuing ban on Catholics using contraception – This has damaged the lives of millions of people, ensuring that unwanted children were conceived whose arrival put their families under economic strain. It also continues to place an inestimable burden of guilt upon those Catholics who have recognized that they have no alternative but to use contra-ception but who fear they will suffer for all eternity as a result.

Prosecutor’s notes:
All the charges relate to the ban on birth control. I know some of you wanted to include the Vatican’s murky financial dealings or the Pope’s suppression of liberation theology in Latin America. But this will be a contentious, explosive case and I wish to limit it to territory that is incontestable in virtually the whole world outside the Catholic priesthood. The ruling on contraception is so far out of step with common-sense opinion – let alone people’s manifest needs – that it defies belief.

[image, unknown] Infringing women’s right to equality, again through the ban on contraception – Women who cannot control their own fertility are forced to become multiple mothers – and every unwanted child they have further reduces their ability to engage with the world of employment on an equal basis.

Of course the Vatican keeps women in the home in all kinds of ways, not just through forcing them to become mothers. According to the Pope in his recent Letter to Women: ‘In giving themselves to others each day, women fulfil their deepest vocation.’ An ever-so-slightly self-serving view for a man (even a celibate one) to pass on to the world.

[image, unknown] Being the indirect cause of abortions – In societies where contraception is discouraged many unwanted pregnancies inevitably end up being aborted in illegal backstreet environments which endanger the mother’s life.

Some of you believe we should be attacking the Vatican line on abortion head-on rather than including it on the charge-sheet as a kind of crime. I also am pro-choice on abortion but tactically I think it’s better to exploit the irony that the ban on contraception promotes what the Church considers to be an even greater evil.

[image, unknown] Contributing to the death of thousands of people who have been discouraged from using condoms as a means of protecting themselves against HIV/AIDS.

‘The sexual restraint of chastity is the only safe and virtuous way to put an end to the tragic plague of AIDS,’ the Pope told a rally of 30,000 young people in Kampala, Uganda in 1993. This brings to mind one witness’s line that the Pope has ‘the greatest mind of the fifth century’.

[image, unknown] ANTICIPATED DEFENCE
Eternal truth does not change because human custom does. The word of God is not a fashion accessory.

It’s a good line, which will paint us as bend-with-the-wind trend-followers. But it will be easy enough to counter by quoting the infallible, eternal truth as expressed by notable Popes like Rodrigo de Borgia (father of Lucrezia) or Paul IV, who founded the Inquisition.

[image, unknown] REQUESTED SENTENCE
An overturning of the Church’s ban on contraception.

Perhaps we could also ask God to order the Pope’s next incarnation to be as a woman in a Latin American shanty town doomed to bear 15 children from the age of 14 onwards.

Witnesses for the prosecution

Julia, an Italian working for the
World Health Organization

In spite of my youth – I’m just 24 – I have experience of the Pope’s unbending ideas, both personally and in my job. I come originally from Lombardy, and although ironically Italy is now one of the countries where papal authority is openly flouted, when I was younger things were different. I had time for the faith then; it seemed as if the more pain and personal suffering you could bear with a sort of pride, the more air miles you accumulated for that flight to Heaven. I had a secret abortion when I was 17. I was more frightened of my father than the priest. It was a living nightmare.

I’ve used artificial birth-control methods ever since but still shudder sometimes when passing a Catholic church or, especially, seeing a nun. For myself I feel free and able to cope now. A good education and exposure to many different parts of the world helped enormously. I guess I’m one of the lucky ones.

In my work just about everyone knows that the Catholic line on contraception is steadily worsening the health of many countries. If you have too many people sharing limited resources you get a serious health problem. I’m talking about basic poor nutrition or worse and its inevitable effect on the human body – babies as well as older people. It goes without saying that appalling social conditions are invariably present.

There’s a small Catholic church just around the corner from my office. It reminds me of the one I knew as a child. It’s a system, isn’t it, just like McDonalds; the same taste all over the world.

If we can get rid of this man and his black-clothed and grim helpers I for one will breathe more easily.

Frances Kissling, president of
Catholics for a Free Choice in Washington, US

As a feminist critic of the Vatican I have at times harbored secret doubts that I am too hard on the leaders of my Church, too hackneyed in my charges that hatred of women and fear of sexuality are at the root of Vatican positions on birth control and abortion. Could it not be true, as these male leaders now frequently claim, that they are genuinely motivated by respect for all life?

Recent events have silenced my misgivings. Misogyny is alive and well at the Vatican; women’s lives still rank bottom when it comes to respect, much less value.

On 24 April Pope John Paul II crowned this year’s Vatican campaign to articulate a so-called traditional vision of family and women’s roles therein by beatifying two women who would serve as ‘models of Christian perfection’. Beatification, a status high on the ladder to sainthood, signals the Vatican’s approbation of the honored one’s life – or death.

‘We wish,’ said the Pope, ‘to pay homage to all those courageous mothers who devote themselves unreservedly to their families and who suffer to bring their children into the world.’

Fair enough, my moderated side says: you are always demanding that the Pope pay homage to ordinary women. Now he has done so and still you complain, seeing sexism behind even the most benign acts. But look at what’s considered special about these two near-saints’ lives, and think about the significance of holding them up as models, especially for young women.

The first, Gianna Beretta, an Italian paediatrician pregnant with her fourth child and suffering from a lethal uterine cancer, insisted that, if necessary, her life should be sacrificed for that of her unborn child. Of course, the sacrifice became necessary, and in 1962 she died so that her child might live.

I respect that choice: I would equally respect a woman who chose to live. I have a nagging suspicion, however, that in beatifying Gianna Beretta, the Pope is instructing us in the difference between a good mother and a bad one: a good mother will give her life for an unborn child; a bad mother might think that preserving her life would better serve her family and community. And only a very bad woman might think that she deserved to survive even if she had no family.

Still, I tell myself, Gianna Beretta’s decision could be interpreted as heroic. But the second beatification is unambiguously disturbing. Elisabetta Canori Mora, a Roman who died in 1825, remained in a marriage where her husband abused her and finally abandoned her, leaving her to care alone for their children. ‘Elisabetta Canori Mora,’ the Pope said, ‘showed, in the midst of numerous conjugal difficulties, her total fidelity to the commitment assumed in the sacrament of marriage and responsibilities deriving from it.’ For staying in a lousy and destructive marriage, she is on the road to becoming a saint. Now there’s a good role model for Catholic teenage girls…

Large families are common in the poorest region of Brazil, the north-east. The Pope has done all he can to suppress support in the Brazilian Church for liberation theology and social justice.

There are countless building blocks in this ancient edifice of misogyny. Another recent example: Church officials were asked whether a man who had AIDS could use a condom to protect his wife from the transmission of the disease. This couple, the Vatican responded, is called by God to abstain from sex. If they find abstinence an impossible strain on their marriage and do have sex, they may not use a condom. Saving the marriage is more important than saving the woman’s life.

This lack of respect for women and the palpable aversion to sexuality are timeless. Read the words of St Paul: ‘Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet woman will be saved by bearing children.’

St Paul was wrong, especially on the last point. In this Church, it takes more than bearing children to pass the test of blessedness; total submissiveness is still the rule.

(Catholics for a Free Choice)

Mary, a mother
of six from Ireland

I’m over 50 now, a little wiser maybe, but when I look back at my experiences in the Church and what happened to me and so many of my happy young friends I could cry. Sometimes I can get angry out of the blue.

I married a nice Catholic boy and was happy to bear six children before the penny dropped. I had turned into a baby machine. The reasonable income we had became, slowly, not enough. We began to argue about limiting our family. I went to family planning and was given the Pill without question. The Church said it was OK to have it ‘to regulate my cycle’.

I’ve been taking the Pill now for almost two years. My husband thinks we finally got the hang of the rhythm method. I dare not tell him the truth – he’s more frightened of Divine Retribution than me.

Margarita, 31, a nurse
from the Philippines

There is so much I would like to say but still can’t. I just can’t get it out. It’s more than fear, something else.

All I can say is that until I was old enough to leave home and get a job life was just terrible. I was in the company of more and more brothers and sisters as time passed. Hardly any money and too many times no food. My mother kept calling us her ‘little blessings’.

I never understood why it was a blessing to have more children than you could clothe or feed.

Theresa, a 48-year-old sales
executive from Bristol, England

The Virgin Mary terrified me, she was never a comfort. We were told how loving and kind Jesus and the Church and the Pope were – but just as frequently reminded what awaited us if we deviated, even in thought. The constant confessing of trivialities tore my mind and happiness apart.

My marriage was a disaster. After two children we really couldn’t afford more. Yet I was terrified of using artificial contraception. I’d left the Church five years before this and at one level saw through it all. Yet still I was frightened of what might happen to me if I ‘sinned’. I went through a terrible abortion and started drinking.

It’s taken a long time to put my life back together. I wonder sometimes if I will ever really be free from those people. They did such a good job on my mind.

(Julia, Mary, Margarita and Theresa were interviewed for the NI by Neil Christie-Ormond)

©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996

New Internationalist issue 275 magazine cover This article is from the January 1996 issue of New Internationalist.
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