Caryl Rivers

(WOMENSENEWS)–I was in the middle of writing about the stunning and often stealthy attack on birth control that is going on now when the news broke that Pope John Paul II had passed away.

The ensuing typhoon of coverage pointed out so many of the pope’s laudable efforts, from fighting poverty and war to his early days giving courageous support to Solidarity in Poland.

Many of his efforts–at social justice, at opposing the death penalty and at reaching out to Jews and Muslims–deserve all the wide praise they are receiving.

But his policies towards women–including the denial of female ordination–seem stalled in an earlier era. Looking at the event from the perspective of what is going on in pharmacies and state legislatures and science advisory panels in this country, I was astonished to see that the Vatican’s attack on birth control was skimmed over.

This is not a minor part of his legacy; it is a major part of the mix.

The war on birth control is being waged on many fronts all over the world, including right here, under our noses in the United States.

Unease on Web Sites

Log onto Web sites where feminists offer opinions and you will see great unease about the fact that this facet of a very political man’s history is being downplayed.

“Is it driving anyone else crazy that the pope’s death is being covered without mention of the fact that he worked fiercely to prevent condoms from being distributed by international forces, thus ensuring that hundreds of thousands of people in the global south would die of AIDS?” reads a post on the Women and Media Conference Web site.

Thousands of articles have been published about the pope. (Within the 24-hour period following his death, 35,000 articles were written about him, 10 times more than the number of stories written about President Bush in the 24-hour period following his reelection, according to The Global Language Monitor, an online news- and word-watcher.)

Missing from much of the coverage of the widespread grief over the pope’s passing were acknowledgements of grievous parts of the Vatican story.

“Rome” was very slow to acknowledge a worldwide scandal of priestly pedophilia. (Hats off to Thomas Cahill for his op-ed piece on this in yesterday’s New York Times and to Jason Berry in the Boston Globe on the same subject.) It also disseminated misinformation claiming that condoms could not stop the AIDS virus and condoned the burning of condoms in Catholic churches in AIDS-racked Africa.

Key Player in Attack on Birth Control

The Vatican is also a key player in a persistent U.S. campaign by Christian conservatives and the Bush administration against birth control.

Bills in this country have been introduced in a number of states to allow pharmacists to refuse to fill doctors’ prescriptions for the emergency-contraception pill.

More and more states are mandating that only abstinence be taught in public school sex-education classes, even while misinformation about birth control is rife in such courses.

Information about the effectiveness of condoms has been pulled from government Web sites.

The White House has appointed members to federal science advisory panels who oppose birth control on moral grounds.

Legislators in a number of states are trying to define all forms of birth control other than abstinence (including the pill) as abortion.

All of this is promoted and blessed by cardinals obedient to the Vatican.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops proclaim that artificial birth control is sinful, even as they acknowledge that only about 4 percent of Roman Catholic couples of child-bearing age practice “natural” family planning. The church has also opposed bills in several states that would force health-care insurers to cover contraceptives for women.

Ominous Signs

There are ominous signs that the next assault in the war against birth control will be an attempt to remove from the market any substance–including the pill and the IUD–that might have even the possibility of affecting fertilization.

Pro-life Wisconsin, for example, calls “sinful” all types of contraception except abstinence, including “all forms of the birth control pill currently being sold,” according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Bills have been crafted in the state to write that notion into law.

Kim Olsen, head of the Missouri Republicans for Choice, notes with alarm that the Republican legislature recently axed the state’s highly successful and cost-effective family-planning program. She sees all birth control as being in the cross-hairs of the religious right in her party.

“Reproductive freedoms are being legislated away, piece by piece, by my own party. Like many moderate Republicans, I never thought it could happen. But it has,” she says.

American women of all political parties, need to understand that–as Newsday columnist Marie Cocco puts it–we are seeing a “jeremiad against women who want to control every facet of their destiny. The campaign against sex education, against condoms–and now against a tiny pill that sits in the medicine chests of millions of American homes–is a comprehensive assault on modern life.”

The battle is no longer simply over abortion.

It is over the most basic rights of women to have any control over when–or
if–they will bear children.

We may wake up one day and discover that our rights have been nibbled away by laws consistent with the beliefs of Pope John Paul II and others who have opposed women’s reproductive freedom–and their political allies–that have a radical agenda of which few Americans approve.

Caryl Rivers is a professor of journalism at Boston University and author of “Same Difference: How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children and Our Jobs” (Basic books).

For more information:

The New York Times–
OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR The Price of Infallibility:

Boston Globe–
The paradoxical pope: