Normative Narratives

The Pope’s Quandary: Contraception and Poverty

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To much fanfare, last week Pope Francis denounced the economic system which he believes perpetuates inequality and extreme poverty. Hopes are high that this progressive Pope can use his influential post to reform the Catholic Church. Already, Francis has gone on record saying that the church is “too obsessed” with birth control, abortion, and gay marriage:

“It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time,” Pope Francis told an Italian outlet. “The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent.”

In the new interview, Francis pointed out that the Church should be “a home for all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people.”

However, saying it is “not necessary to talk about these issues all the time” is a bit of a cop-out, especially given overwhelming evidence that increased access to contraception can reduce poverty:

Some family planning proponents emphasize health and longevity benefits; others talk of human rights.

In the mix of available arguments, Population Action International has been focusing on the promise of economic prosperity. The organization advocates for women and families to have access to contraception in order to improve their health, reduce poverty and protect their environment.

“Right now, 222 million women, or 1-in-4 women of reproductive age, in the developing world do not want to become pregnant but need modern contraception,” said Dilly Severin, director of communications at the group, known as PAI. The organization “has a history of highlighting the common sense connections between fulfilling a woman’s right to contraception and the health, economic and other benefits that flow from it.” 

African political and cultural leaders made statements about the importance of youth to the demographic dividend, the economic growth that may result from changes in a country’s age structure, Weinstein-Levey said.

“They recognized that investing in youth’s sexual reproductive health and rights is critical to helping young people and to helping African economies reach their full potential. Many of these nations are on track to achieve the demographic dividend, but could significantly expedite progress with the boost of family planning,” she said.

Mothers and infants in sub-Saharan Africa face the greatest risks, according to Save the Children’s annual State of World’s Mothers report 2013, which assesses the well-being of mothers and children in 176 countries. The bottom 10 countries on the Mothers’ Index are all in sub-Saharan Africa, with infants in Somalia having the highest risk globally of dying on their birth day. First-day death rates are almost as high in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali and Sierra Leone. Meanwhile, mothers in Somalia and Sierra Leone face the second and third highest lifetime risk of maternal death in the world, respectively.

Surely, reducing infant and/or maternal mortality are at least as important in “protecting the sanctity of life” as contraception / abortion are…

The “common sense” benefits between fulfilling a women’s reproductive rights and poverty reduction are not new or novel–they are generally accepted in development economics. What is new / novel is a Pope who puts poverty alleviation above opulence, and human rights above religious dogma.

The Bible say’s “judge not lest ye be judged”. Pope Francis seems to be an accountable man; he has judged the global financial system, now he should judge the Catholic Church. It is hypocritical to blame the global economic system for perpetuating inequality, while ignoring the role his organization plays in allowing poverty to persist in the developing world.

Furthermore, while the Pope (and indeed any individual) has a very limited ability to affect the entire global economic system, it is very much within the Pope’s ability to shape the thinking and policies of the Catholic Church.  

It appears Pope Francis “practices what he preaches”, by living a humble life and even sneaking out at night to help the poor. I am not Catholic or even religious, but I support the stances Pope’s Francis has taken thus-far. However, instead of just finger-pointing, there are steps he can take that would allow the Catholic Church to take the lead in the battle against extreme poverty. 

 

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