The leadership of the Roman Catholic Church is unable to acknowledge and trust that women will make good decisions about family planning, sterilization, and abortion.
One of the most complex and important questions facing policymakers is the role of religious institutions in the formulation of public policy and law. The question most frequently arises in relation to political activism by conservative religious groups and in the context of social policy related to what traditionally has been defined as the private sphere: family life, women's rights and roles in public life, sexuality, and reproduction. The advances that have been made in granting women legal protection against discrimination and in expanding the definition of individual rights to include making decisions about when, whether, and how to have children have produced a significant political and cultural backlash, particularly among religious conservatives.
These rights particularly have triggered differences of opinion between Catholics and official representatives of the Church. Why, one might ask, should non-Catholics be concerned with the views of the Roman Catholic Church on public policy issues? The Church, after all, is a religious institution. Nevertheless, a principle of democratic societies is religious freedom, and within this context, the Catholic Church has every right to put forward its views, values, and principles. Among Catholics, these views and values are taken very seriously, but what role do they play in the lives of non-Catholics or the political life of a country?
Since the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo (1994) and the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing (1995), it has become more obvious why the views of the Catholic establishment are an issue that should concern Catholics and non-Catholics alike. At these conferences, for perhaps the first time in the 20th century, the Church was seen clearly as a political player on issues of both international and national political significance. Women's rights, sexuality, reproductive health, and population policy finally were on the political radar screen, and the Vatican, along with conservative Muslims and the Christian Right, were energized by hopes of preserving a largely rejected, religiously based view of gender, sexuality, and reproduction.
These views, especially when they become public policy, rather than religious tenets, have been detrimental to women's well-being and to family, community, and the planet. They limit the rights of individual women to make moral decisions about their lives. When the Catholic Church puts forward a public policy position--whether it is to oppose all contraceptives, deny emergency contraception to women who have been raped and seek services at Catholic hospitals, work to make abortion illegal or see that it is unavailable, prevent sexuality education programs in public schools, or refuse to provide information about...