Sorry, Rome, U.S. Catholics Are More like Melinda Gates

Why does the Vatican still condemn birth control when it saves women's lives and prevents future abortions?

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CARL COURT / AFP / Getty Images

British Prime Minister David Cameron, left, and Melinda Gates, a co-founder and co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, speak with delegates during the London Summit on Family Planning on July 11, 2012

Conservative Roman Catholics can handle it when non-Catholics oppose Vatican doctrine. But when other Catholics publicly disagree with church dogma and still have the audacity to call themselves Catholics, the hard-liners start pulling fire alarms. So it’s been in recent days as Melinda Gates, a practicing Catholic, prepared to co-host the London Summit on Family Planning. Because the Vatican still condemns birth control, fundamentalist Catholic blogs have been going off like air-raid sirens at the thought of Gates — wife of Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates, with whom she runs the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — promoting contraception as a means of reducing high maternal mortality rates in the developing world.

“Time to Reboot Melinda Gates,” read a headline this week on the conservative website Catholic Online. “Instead of using her vast wealth to promote virtue,” the site said, she “is using her wealth to promote vice … [T]his is not what a ‘practicing’ Catholic does.” Other sites have even called Gates an “evil” woman whose contraception campaign is not only “a blatant attack on Catholic sexual morality” but also an endorsement of eugenics — or racist population control — an effort “to make sure there are fewer Africans,” according to one blog.

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Gates has shrugged off the Catholic right’s wrath, insisting that the London conference, where the Gates Foundation and the British government hope to raise $4 billion to expand access to contraception in regions like Africa, won’t be discussing abortion or population control but rather “giving women the power to save their lives.” A new Johns Hopkins University study, financed by the Gates Foundation and published this week in the British science journal the Lancet, shows that increased contraceptive use could cut maternal mortality in developing countries by a third, not just by lowering unhealthily excessive childbirth rates but also by helping to avoid risky teen pregnancies and reducing unsafe abortions.

Such evidence rarely, if ever, convinces the Catholic fundamentalists, who adhere to the Vatican’s medieval-era insistence that birth control and nonprocreative sexual intercourse violate natural and moral law. But it would be a mistake for Gates or anyone else to dismiss them as a fringe voice on the issue — because while the first world, including the vast majority of Catholics in developed countries, rejects their birth control credo as an extremist anachronism, fundamentalists’ thinking still holds sway over much of the third world.

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That’s especially true in many of the Latin American nations I cover. In developed regions like Western Europe, maternal mortality rates can be as low as five female deaths per 100,000 live births, as it is in Sweden. But in Nicaragua, where the Catholic Church can still bully the government into making contraception scarce, it leaps 20-fold to a frightful 100 deaths per 100,000 births — and teens account for 45% of the country’s pregnancies, one of the highest levels in the Americas. Contrast that with neighboring Costa Rica, where birth control codes aren’t legislated from a bishop’s pulpit, and the rate is less than half of Nicaragua’s, at 44 deaths per 100,000 births. The situation is vastly worse in Africa, where maternal mortality is 430 per 100,000 births in Uganda, whose Catholic Church is politically powerful, and it reaches almost triple that in some other countries on the continent.

This disturbs me not just as a practicing journalist but also as a practicing Catholic. I’m a pro-choice Catholic, but I hate to see anything that leads to an increase in abortions, especially unsafe abortions. And that’s exactly what makes the fundamentalist Catholic dogma on birth control not just hoary but hypocritical — what makes this particular sexual morality immoral. It defies human reason, whose conscientious exercise is a central tenet of the Catholic faith, to think that withholding contraception will somehow reduce the world’s abortion rate. Take the heavily Catholic Philippines, where the quasi-omnipotent church has threatened public officials with excommunication if they back accessible birth control. It’s hardly a coincidence that the New York City-based Center for Reproductive Rights reports that more than half a million pregnant Filipino women seek illegal abortions each year.

(MORE: Obama’s Anglican Solution to the Catholic Contraception Problem)

What all this means is that it’s time for Catholics in the developed world, especially the 82% of us in the U.S. who privately tell pollsters that birth control is morally acceptable, to speak up as publicly as Melinda Gates if we believe that the influence of the church is harming women in poorer countries. There is a gross misconception in the U.S. media and the government that the Catholic Church hierarchy speaks for the Catholic Church laity on issues like contraception. It clearly does not — not in surveys, not in voting booths and not in the pews.

And not when it comes, for example, to the Obama Administration’s requirement that religious-based institutions like universities and hospitals provide female employees with access to contraception in their health-insurance coverage. The U.S. Catholic bishops just finished their Fortnight for Freedom campaign to convince the country that the White House mandate violates religious liberty. But they’re having a hard enough time convincing their own flock: polls show almost two-thirds of U.S. Catholics don’t consider the mandate a threat to religious freedom. And that’s largely due, I believe, to the bishops’ grand miscalculation — tying their religious-freedom crusade to a doctrine, the church’s birth control ban, that more than 80% of U.S. Catholics today don’t even agree with.

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Perhaps that’s why, even as fundamentalist bloggers ring their steeple bells against Gates, the U.S. bishops have decided so far to keep mum about her. Perhaps they’re starting to appreciate that what Gates is doing is what more and more of us practicing Catholics do as well.