5021 Women's Reproductive Health: The Global Picture

Sponsored by the Office of International Relations, Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA)


Prepared for UUA.org by: Jone Johnson Lewis, Reporter; Margy Levine Young, Editor.

The Rev. Meg Riley introduced the session by noting the difficult position that religious groups often face: that it is difficult to criticize other faith groups publicly when they take positions with which we disagree. The challenge for UUs, then, is to find people from within other faith communities, and support their work.

In this spirit, she introduced Frances Kissling, of Catholics for a Free Choice. Kissling began by "clarifying" that she is a Catholic in good standing; while she has been "insulted and spoken of badly" by the church, there has been no attempt to sanction her ecclesiastically in any way. Internally within the church, she said, Catholics have the right to disagree.

Following up on Riley's comments, Kissling agreed that religions have trouble speaking against the positions of other religions. But, she added, faith groups have a responsibility to be prophetic. Tolerance isn't the highest value, she said, truth and justice are, for her. When these are poorly served, there may be "false tolerance."

The Roman Catholic Church, she pointed out, doesn't have problems speaking out. "It barely tolerates the existence of other faiths," she said wryly. The Roman Catholic Church, she said, is actually on the religious fringes on some issues. It is almost the only religion which forbids heterosexual couples from using birth control and most methods of assisted fertility. Islam, in contrast, roots a man's responsibility for sexually pleasing one's wife in the Koran, and the right to abortion is also rooted in the Koran.

Once a faith group moves into the public policy realm, others have the freedom to criticize, to use political humor, and even to ridicule, short of meanness. "When religious institutions do silly things—or harmful things—it is not anti-religious to point this out. It is in fact a religious obligation." Religious institutions don't enter the public sphere in a privileged position, and the shyness that has prevailed when it comes to criticism of positions taken by the institutional Catholic Church has to be overcome.

"The positions taken by may church, and by fundamentalist churches, damage women, children, men, and families," she continued. "These are not family-friendly policies." Women are still dying worldwide because they get pregnant. Women need better access to contraceptives, need access to good maternal health care, and need not to have to rely on botched abortions. This is a health issue and a human rights issue. Any institution that is taken positions that continue this tragic loss of life needs to be criticized, and the positions need to be criticized.

Twenty-five percent of the millions worldwide with HIV/AIDS, Kissling said, get their treatment from Roman Catholic institutions, while the church still teaches that condoms are evil, don't work, and have holes for the HIV virus to go through. Kissling added that if other groups said these things, we'd express outrage.

Many liberals have a habit of being very comfortable with ridiculing the Rev. Jerry Falwell and the Rev. Pat Robertson, not being tolerant of fundamentalists, and apply a different standard to the Roman Catholic Church. She urged thinking about this.

Kissling noted that the majority of Catholics worldwide are for choice, and they feel lonely and abandoned by colleagues in the interfaith community who won't criticize the church. Clergy work with priests on other interfaith issues, and then decide to "tolerate damage to women" to avoid higher costs. As an Egyptian doctor told Kissling, "women still don't matter." Women are expendable and replaceable. "No individual woman really, truly matters—and it's hard not to come to that conclusion when you see how international and U.S. women's health care policy does nothing to truly improve the lives of women," said Kissling.

The U.S. is one of only two countries in the world where there is a constitutional right of women to decide whether to have an abortion. Reflecting the changing face of American religion, on the U.S. Supreme Court today, Kissling said, there is one mainline Protestant (David Souter, who is an Episcopalian), five conservative Catholics, two Jews, and one "non-denominational Protestant" (John Paul Stevens). Kissling guessed that we won't see Roe v. Wade overturned explicitly, but that more restrictions on abortion will be added, and poor women will have the most difficulty with access. In addition, there are growing restrictions on contraception, and some employers don't want to cover contraception costs. There is increasing opposition to embryonic stem cell research, even attempts to "adopt" embryos, as with Operation Snowflake. There are attempts to limit free speech of organizations that receive public money, preventing them from advising about some reproductive options.

This U.S. administration, Kissling continued, can't deliver on women's issues domestically for its base, so it will "pick on the powerless," and eliminate access to women's reproductive health services overseas. Today, programs that accept U.S. government money for family planning services must comply with many rules that keep them from providing abortion services, including counseling, as just one example. And today, even HIV/AIDS programs accepting U.S. government money, directly or indirectly, may also find that pregnant women can't have the full availability of choices.

Kissling then talked about how conservative Christians have taken over the issue of sex trafficking, as "one place they can show they support women." However, their approach, she said, is "anti-sex and anti-woman." Groups with whom they work must sign pledges that they won't work for the legalization or decriminalization of prostitution, and women must "admit" to "sin"—other reasons for becoming prostitutes are not acceptable, if the woman wants the help.

But, Kissling also said, there are good things going on in parts of the world. In Colombia, just a month ago, the court ruled the anti-abortion law unconstitutional. The Slovak government refused to go along when the Roman Catholic Church sought a legal right to refuse services inconsistent with the church's ideas, which the Slovak government discovered would be incompatible with European law. The government did not do what the church wanted it to do.

She returned to the U.S. situation to point out that the joint power of the Roman Catholic Church and fundamentalist Christians, who have very little love for each other under normal conditions, join forces in "crusades" against gay rights, abortion, euthanasia, etc. The argument that life begins at conception and ends at natural death is becoming more and more linked, and the power of government involvement means we all must become involved in this.

What can a Unitarian Universalist do? Some ideas were:

  • Those who come at issues of reproduction and sexuality must come at these issues in a way that reflects the values of our faith. Don't just follow the lead of groups like Planned Parenthood in how we talk about these issues; we must find a values-based set of arguments and principles that appeal to those who are not convinced on these issues. Don't just preach to the choir—or the UU pews—because "the choir is not big enough" to win on these issues. Religious groups have to frame our arguments in the context of positive issues, what it means to live a good life. How does our sexuality and how we exercise our capacity to reproduce reflect our values?
  • As people of faith, be critical of those positions by religious organizations that don't reflect our values. When in coalitions with Roman Catholics, raise these issues. Talk about those positions that violate our freedom of religion. They need to know that some others "than those nutty feminists in Catholics for a Free Choice" have these ideas. They are likely to respect their colleagues in interfaith organizations more than "those people who can't get ordained anyway."
  • Many denominations that have pro-choice positions do not send their top leadership to conferences and don't have their top leaders sign statements. It's not important enough for their leadership to be up front, and they need to bring these issues more to the forefront.
  • Vote and be active in campaigns as individuals, and be active in schools and in our communities "and in every way that we possibly can."

Kathy Sreedhar, Director of the UU Holdeen India Program, spoke briefly on work in India, especially work with some Muslim groups. Muslims are a minority in India—though the Indian Muslim population is the second largest Muslim population in the world, after Indonesia.

U.S. policies get in the way of helping women in India. Sex workers who are voluntarily in that profession aren't permitted to get HIV help.

Some countries find that alternative funding is preferable. Brazilians turned down $40 million in HIV funds from the U.S. because of funding restrictions, and private funding has replaced that money.

Sreedhar urged Unitarian Universalists to

  • Get in touch with legislators
  • Connect with overseas groups, and, if you're a contributor, make your voice heard—tell them that you don't want them to cooperate with these policies

Social change, she said, requires nothing more than hard and consistent work.