The Progressive Pope’s Regressive Stance on Birth Control

By John Seager | 25 September 2015
Population Connection

In a commentary in the journal Nature Climate Change, Paul Ehrlich, a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, argues that Pope Francis is simply wrong in trying to fight climate change without also addressing the additional strain on global resources from population rise. “That’s raving nonsense,” Ehrlich told the Guardian. “He is right on some things but he is just dead wrong on that.”

I get why people like Pope Francis—he is charismatic, humble, and has an awfully contagious smile. He’s also radical by papal standards; being the first pope to dominate the social media realm and the first to be named “Person of the Year’ by an LGBT magazine. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t admire his cool tenacity.

But as crowds gather to catch a glimpse of Pope Francis—the religious rock star—on his East Coast tour, I can’t help but wonder about the fans who praise him for his enlightened stance on poverty, inequality, and climate change. Because, unless Francis ends his backwards proscription of birth control, it will be impossible for him to make any long-lasting improvements in those arenas.

From championing efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to speaking out against economic disparity, the pope’s attempts to make the world a better place are futile alongside his reluctance to endorse access to the full range of contraceptives as a necessary and moral good.

Contraception, quite literally, saves lives—especially those of women and girls in the developing world who are deprived of antenatal services. Mothers and babies perish when women are prevented from delaying, spacing, or avoiding pregnancies. And young children whose mothers die during pregnancy and childbirth are cruelly left to fend for themselves.

In fact, if every single woman living in the developing world used modern contraception, the number of unintended pregnancies would be reduced by 70 percent and unsafe abortions would drop by 74 percent. Imagine how much that would enable women and girls to obtain an education and career; not to mention boost entire economies.

Increasing universal access to contraceptives is also central to addressing the challenge of climate change—a cause that the pope considers so important that he revolved his entire encyclical around it. While it’s a welcome step in the right direction, Francis remains opposed to breaking the doctrinal chains that prevent the Vatican from recognizing the environmental impacts of unintended pregnancy and, in turn, unsustainable population growth.

According to a recent study, slowing population growth could significantly reduce carbon emissions and diminish the onslaught of dangerous climate change. It truly is a matter of life and death for millions of, what Francis would term, God’s creatures.

Having the ability to choose when and whether to have children gives people—especially women and girls living in poor nations—a greater shot at enduring and recovering from extreme weather events. Families that can prevent unintended pregnancies are usually much better equipped, financially and otherwise, to counter the effects of climate change.

But, for Francis, science and facts take a backseat to doctrine. It’s a fact that eliminating the barriers that prevent women from accessing birth control reduces the rate of abortion—one of the greatest “sins” in the eyes of the Catholic Church. It’s also a fact that increased use of birth control is crucial for attaining many of the proposed UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), such as empowering women and girls. Yet, even those basic truths are not enough to sway the pope’s edict on modern contraception.

While reformism may have its limits in the Vatican, the championing of human rights shouldn’t. Planning and preventing pregnancy not only saves lives; it helps to fight poverty, close the inequality gap, and reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that get pumped into the atmosphere.

It’s time for His Holiness to cease his condemnation of modern contraception and live up to his reputation as a progressive, egalitarian pope. Otherwise, Francis, the rock star, may become Francis, the one-hit wonder.

John Seager is the President and CEO of Population Connection. Before joining Population Connection, he was with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency during the Clinton Administration. A veteran of more than 50 political campaigns, Seager has published op/eds and articles on population growth for news outlets like Huffington Post, GlobalPost, and RH Reality Check.

John Seager: World Population, the Environment and Social Equity (AHA Conference 2015)

Professor Paul Ehrlich: Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided?

What Melinda Gates would tell the Pope

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