The irresponsibility of rabbits

The woman has no name, no country, no history beyond the parable of irresponsibility. The name may be unimportant, because we know her story. We’ve heard it before.

Once, said Pope Francis, he met a pregnant woman on a visit to a parish. The child was her eighth. The first seven were born through caesarean sections. The Pope “rebuked the woman” for the “irresponsibility” of conceiving the eighth.

“Do you want to leave seven orphans?” the Pope asked. “That is to tempt God!”

It is irresponsibility, he says. God, explains the shepherd of the church, “gives you methods to be responsible.”

“Some think that – excuse me if I use that word – that in order to be good Catholics we have to be like rabbits.

“No.”

An old revolution

It appears, on the surface, a revolutionary break from the Philippine Catholic Church’s more aggressive indictment of contraception. The Pope does not mention artificial contraception. He instead speaks of ideological colonization and the value of family. His tone is conciliatory, his language generous, his approach a call for inclusion. 

He does not call legislators slaughters of innocents, as Monsignor Joselito Asis did when he asked politicians to avoid being Herods by supporting the Reproductive Health Bill. The Pope did not frame the debate as “an open war against us and against the church,” or accuse supporters of artificial contraception of “doing ethnic cleansing,” as the rabble-rousing Lipa Archbishop Ramon Arguelles said in 2012. There are no demons here, no threats of excommunication.

This is a new church, with a new leader – the People’s Pope, the Pope of the Poor, whose seemingly progressive, pastoral approach has brought thousands back into the loving fold of Holy Mother Church. His is the smiling face under the dripping cowl of a yellow raincoat, the righteous voice in defense of refugees and the internally displaced. He is the charming pope, the loving pope, who eschews riches, eats in cafeterias, and reads the crayon-printed letters of Manila's street children.

Yet the Pope’s much debated statement on limiting family size is in no way radical to current Catholic teaching. Since the 1950's, the church has advocated responsible choices in the conception of children. Pope Pius XII said Catholic couples could regulate births by avoiding sex during a woman’s fertile period – what is considered today as natural family planning.

Natural is moral

In 1990, when the population was at nearly 62 million, Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) President Archbishop Leonardo Legaspi released the Guiding Principles on Population Control. It discussed the immorality of artificial contraception and advocated that couples “seek to bring into the world only those that they can raise up as good human beings.” In the past years, the Philippine Catholic Church, as part of its attempt to overturn the demand for artificial contraception, led campaigns to explain and encourage the use of natural family planning methods for the sake of responsible parenthood.

Perhaps what is different is not so much the doctrine, but the language, and the voice that speaks it.

For the Pope, given the “many, many licit” and moral ways to regulate pregnancies, 8 dangerous pregnancies is irresponsible. The picture he paints makes it difficult to understand why women still risk their lives with consecutive pregnancies, even knowing there are no resources to support even a second or third child.

Yet it is a simplistic approach. The argument is the Church’s smug solution to avoiding accusations of irresponsibility for hundreds of thousands of unwanted pregnancies resulting from an inability to access artificial contraception. 

They say natural methods exist – take your temperature, count the days, one-two-three like rosary beads, tell your husband tomorrow is better.

It is an answer that does not comprehend the irregularities of the female body, the odd infections that raise temperatures and change cycles, the unlikeliness of committing to a daily, disciplined routine of gauging mucus and measuring degrees while a baby screams on the kitchen floor.

Neither does natural family planning take into account that the husband must also be involved, an impossibility when the husband is abusive or uneducated or simply does not care. In a country where annulments are expensive and divorces are illegal, women are forced by physical and economic fear to remain inside unhappy or dangerous marriages, unable to control their future.

The new church

The Pope is Catholic. The Church is conservative. None of this is a surprise. He may preach mercy and compassion, but little of either is shown for the women he blames for breeding like rabbits in a church that bans artificial contraception.

In a study released by the Guttmacher Institute, without contraceptive use, the Phillippines would have had 1.3 million more unplanned births, 900,000 more induced abortions and 3,500 more maternal deaths each year.

In 2008, 1.1 million unwanted pregnancies were reported among practitioners of natural family planning.

According to the CBCP, natural methods fail, even when used perfectly, in up to 3 out of 100 couples. The World Health Organization raises the number to 21 with typical use. The US Office for Population Affairs puts the number at 25 out of a 100. 

Even with large scale Catholic advocacy for natural family planning, at least 2,827 Filipino women died at childbirth in 2009. The International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics says that contributing factors to maternal mortality include early marriage, early pregnancies, close intervals between pregnancies, pregnancies after the age of 40, frequent childbirth, illiteracy, malnutrition and lack of access to contraception.

According to data from the United Nations, the prevention of unplanned pregnancies could lower the number of maternal deaths up to forty percent. 

Every day, seven women die at childbirth in the Philippines.

Many of them, by the definition of the Church, were irresponsible.

Down the rabbit hole

Let us give the woman a name. Rowena, of the bony fingers and big tired eyes, whose husband sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t. Let us say the child is Rowena’s ninth instead of her eighth, and that the children were born not from c-sections but naturally, pushed into a midwife’s hands on a bloody pallet laid on the dirt floor of a shanty in a village called San Andres.

Let us say Rowena’s attempt at limiting her children failed.

Let us say the ninth child was unwanted – the same as the last five were.

“That is an irresponsibility,” says the Pope.

Let us say she understood her irresponsibility, understood it so well and so clearly that she shoved a catheter into her vagina and let blood and baby gush. Let us call her Rowena – Rowena the irresponsible, Rowena the criminal, breeder of rabbits, daughter of Christ, the blessed poor of a compassionate church.

This is the Philippines, 98 million strong, the throbbing heart of a dying church, where divorce is illegal and contraception is genocide and six million faithful fill the streets in search of salvation.

This is where a bishop from Daet once said overpopulation is God’s way of offering good wives to ageing foreigners, where the allegedly corrupt sit with the supposedly pure, smiling side by side before a man with a yellow bow pinned to a pineapple silk shirt.

This is where the well-coiffed stream out of casino hotels to wave handkerchiefs at the kind man in the white robe, where the sky is full of song, and where squatters are stolen away to resort vacations, only to reappear under bridges and beside highways, unhappy to have missed the coming of Francis the First.

Here, in God’s country, there is little mercy for sheep who follow the shepherd. – Rappler.com