Catholic Melinda Gates vs Church on Contraception

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 5/10/2012 10:27:00 AM
For reasons you are doubtlessly aware of, the emphasis on population control of most in the development mainstream has long attracted criticism from the Roman Catholic Church. What we have here is a new twist on an old story: as cash-strapped Western nations have become warier about providing development aid, other actors have stepped up--especially wealthy private interests alike the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In theory, these foundations combine the best of both worlds by avoiding electoral politics--witness tied aid--and applying a business-like sophistication to social problems.

But some things never change. It was perhaps inevitable that the Gates Foundation would bump up against the Church when it came to matters dealing with contraception. While there has been a change of emphasis on the rationale for it--instead of allaying fears of large Malthusian population increases in the postwar period, it is now on female empowerment concerning reproductive health decisions--the controversy remains.

An interesting twist on this story is that the main proponent of contraception is Catholic. Melinda Gates' religion invites media scrutiny as well as, I am sure, no small amount of introspection on her part about practicing her faith. As with many controversial issues, her plan to fund contraception research and dissemination adopts the "technocratic pose" which goes something like this--we are applying scientific method here, hence we should leave the politics out of this. Here is a key excerpt from the Newsweek article:
Perhaps more importantly, there’s her Catholic faith, which has always informed her work. “From the very beginning, we said that as a foundation we will not support abortion, because we don’t believe in funding it,” she says. She’s long disagreed with the church’s position on contraception, and the Gates Foundation did some family-planning funding early in its history. Still, she went through a lot of soul-searching before she was ready to champion the issue publicly. “I had to wrestle with which pieces of religion do I use and believe in my life, what would I counsel my daughters to do,” she says. Defying church teachings was difficult, she adds, but also came to seem morally necessary. Otherwise, she says, “we’re not serving the other piece of the Catholic mission, which is social justice.”

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.”
Do a quick search on this article and you can see very strong denunciations from church and family groups [e.g. 1, 2]. (If you think I'm snarky, wait till you read these folks' scribblings.) As a Catholic myself, I would like to expand on points for consideration that the Newsweek article does bring up:

(1) For better or worse depending on your point of view, you have to differentiate between the Roman Catholic Church and Catholics at large regarding contraceptive practices. The former sticks to the doctrine that contraception is unacceptable, but the latter have been more open to if not exactly being forthcoming about the use of contraceptive devices. In Catholic teaching, you often come across idealized analogies of the family as reflections of Christ's own. In the real world, Catholics too must deal with single parenthood, forced marriages, abusive spouses and so forth that are not necessarily conducive to such ideals.

Economists speak of first-best conditions where development theories are more likely to deliver. Similarly, Church teaching is often similar to first-best in the social realm, whereas the likes of the Gates Foundation have to deal with more practical, less ideal, situations. Call it the theory of second best applied to social matters. Out there, Catholics are undoubtedly among those who've decided to not follow Church teaching on contraception. While the Church derides this sort of "cafeteria Catholicism"--so we'll avoid abortions but we're OK with contraception--it wouldn't have coined a term for it if it didn't exist.

(2) This matter is unavoidably "political"--especially for Catholics. While there may be a silent majority that tacitly approves of contraception by using it despite not loudly trumpeting the fact, the important adjective is that they are silent. In any political contest, the ability to organize and mobilize count for a lot, and you certainly don't see large groups alike "Catholics 4 Contraception" and so on. There's also the centuries-old tendency to stamp out those unfaithful to Church doctrine, and in this respect it doesn't matter if you're Martin Luther or Melinda Gates.

Personally, I am not so heavily involved in these debates for my (empirically verifiable) belief is that population size is mostly a function of economic growth. That is, births generally fall as societies become wealthier. So, while Mrs Gates and her critics engage in a heated debate over the matter, I would focus more on increasing per-capita income as a relatively uncontroversial objective (except for deep greens, perhaps) in achieving similar goals.

That's just me, though. Some folks apparently prefer giving themselves an especially difficult time. Rest assured that Melinda Gates' allusions to promoting contraception being in line with Church teachings on social justice will not go down well with the orthodoxy and its followers. The technocratic pose simply does not work when you are addressing an especially evocative issue.

Though I do not side with Melinda Gates here, I do acknowledge that the Church could explain its case better in terms of "second-best" situations Catholics in poor countries do find themselves in. Moreover, the widespread phenomenon of cafeteria Catholicism when it comes to contraception is a wake-up call to those who believe that fire-and-brimstone rhetoric discourages those with more immediately pressing concerns.

It isn't like that anymore, if it ever was.