ONE OF THE BITTER DISAPPOINTMENTS of the papacy of John Paul II was that the Roman Catholic church abdicated its responsibility toward women, and in particular toward women's sexual and reproductive health and rights. For a quarter of a century, the church resolutely opposed all moves toward women's empowerment and gender equality, on the international stage and at the national level. In richer countries, women have to some extent been able to avoid the worst effects of doctrines expounded in encyclicals such as Humanae Vitae, which banned all forms of contraception, and the extension of the doctrine to the use of condoms for HIV/AIDS prevention. Eight Catholic women out of 10 in the United States, for example, continue to use contraception despite the ban. Others simply leave the church.
In many poorer countries, however, the church has been more influential. Poor women are still without modern reproductive health services. Some countries have enacted punitive laws against women who have abortions. Others have had to abandon policies to educate girls and women about their human right to sexual health, or what they can do to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancy and HIV/AIDS.
The impact on individual fives has been catastrophic, keeping maternal mortality high and families larger than women would have wanted. Mothers love all their children, but love does not provide food, clothing, shelter or education. Motherly love cannot make up for the tragedy of a schoolgirl's unwanted pregnancy, or for a child bride's fistula. Repressive laws do not prevent abortion; they simply drive it underground and make it more dangerous for women. Ignorance about sexuality does not prevent teenage sex; it simply prevents teenagers making informed decisions about sex. Campaigning against condoms does not encourage men to be more sexually responsible; it merely condemns powerless women to die a lingering death from AIDS.
Until 1978, it was relatively easy for organizations interested in women's sexual and reproductive health and fights to work with the church. We collaborated on programs to counsel engaged couples about family life; we worked together on maternal and child health projects. We agreed that we had a common purpose to save lives, improve health, attack poverty and promote development, and we agreed to disagree about contraceptive technology.
With the passing of Pope Paul VI, everything became much harder. The cordial working atmosphere vanished almost overnight and has never returned. Instead, we found distrust, covert opposition and open hostility, not only to contraception but to all aspects of women's empowerment and gender equality.
For me, as a scientist and medical professional committed to saving and improving the lives of women, the church's policy has been hard to understand. For an international civil servant trying to promote consensus among nations on broad issues of population and development, it has been frustrating, to say the least.
I was very happy to find in Frances Kissling an ally who not only shared my passion for sexual and reproductive health and rights but had a passion of her own, for her church and its mission. I understood quite early in our acquaintance that for her, the church's failure was a personal matter. After the hope of Vatican II, the opening offered by the papacy of Paul VI, the sudden closing of the church's mind to any ideas of women's empowerment or equality was a bitter blow. How could a woman with a mind of her own live in a church that rejected the ideas that gave meaning to her existence?
Many women have faced this dilemma over the last 30 years, but very few …