Can access to contraception be a matter of social justice?

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Can access to contraception be a matter of social justice? While Dallas Bishop Kevin J. Farrell certainly doesn't think so (though, he disagrees quite indirectly, citing “recent news events” that compelled his statement) Melinda Gates says yes. She told The Daily Beast that, after some “soul searching,” she concluded that funding family planning initiatives in developing and poor countries was a matter of morality and that she’d have to defy the church in this matter: By not tending to the needs of poor women, she said “we’re not serving the other piece of the Catholic mission, which is social justice.”

The Daily Beast:

Gates believes that by focusing on the lives of women and children, and by making it clear that the agenda is neither coercive population control nor abortion, the controversy over international family-planning programs can be defused. Right now, she points out, 100,000 women annually die in childbirth after unintended pregnancies. Six hundred thousand babies born to women who didn’t want to be pregnant die in the first month of life. “She is somebody who really sees this as a public-health necessity,” says Melanne Verveer, the United States ambassador at large for global women’s issues. “I think she believes, and I hope she is right, that people of different political persuasions can come together on this issue.”

It’s well known that the bishops’ emphasis on its teachings regarding sex and sexuality continues to fall on deaf ears in affluent societies such as ours. Though the exact statistics differ regarding how many Catholic women use contraception or think you can remain a Catholic and use it, there is mounting evidence that most Catholic couples do use it and that many single Catholics are having sex before marriage.  It’s especially interesting to hear such widespread desire for access to contraception from women in African countries, and that they want a form of it that they can hide from their husbands.

Certainly, the bishops’ teachings that sex is a gift and a matter of human dignity should be taken into account.  Bishop Farrell wrote in his statement that “Human sexuality and sexual expression in marriage are among God’s greatest gifts.” But while the teaching says that artificial contraception violates that gift, it fails to offer insight on the other ways in which that gift can be violated, such as in relationships where power and authority rests with one person in the relationship. It also does not offer a solution for women in poverty who cannot deny their husbands sex and for whom multiple pregnancies and births not only prevent them from education and work (the things many women in affluent societies can continue to enjoy), but are also a serious health risk. The pope himself has made mention that chuch teaching cannot be so rigid that it ignores real human need. Is this such a case?

It’s a compelling argument in favor of contraception as social justice that Gates maintains her stance on abortion—her foundation will not fund it—and, yet, she’s committed to preventing a need for abortion by providing access to contraception for poor women in the developing world. Because while sex is certainly a moral issue, so is health and so is poverty, and not only in the developing world, but especially there.