The Church vs the Autonomy of Women’s Bodies


By Michelle Mukonyora

31 March 2016

In light of the Zika outbreak and its link with microcephaly (a condition where babies are born with an abnormally small brain and scalp), there have been calls by health authorities for potentially exposed women to avoid pregnancy. Unfortunately, women in most parts of Latin America are not in a privileged position to heed this advice. Catholicism is taken so seriously that women have no autonomy over their reproductive health. Contraceptives are not easily available, and are generally looked down upon. Already pregnant women whose foetuses have Zika induced microcephaly, and may want an abortion, cannot have one. Women who would like the option of having a sex life but don’t want to risk getting pregnant, are forced to take their chances. El Salvador for example does not allow abortions under any circumstances. Even if the pregnancy poses a health risk to the mother. There are extreme cases of women even being arrested for miscarriages.

Now would be the perfect time for the Church to step up and show its relevance and leadership in the every day lives of its followers. Despite calls to relax the Church’s stance on contraceptives and abortion following the Zika outbreak, Pope Francis has ignored this. He had the following to say:“Abortion is not the lesser of two evils. It is a crime. It is to throw someone out in order to save another. That’s what the Mafia does. It is a crime, an absolute evil.”. Howeverthe Church in itself, is not inherently ridiculous and insensitive to the needs of women. Pope Paul VI once said; “Avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil”Paul said this when he made contraceptive allowances for nuns who were at risk of being raped by soldiers in war-afflicted countries. Surely Francis could use the same reasoning in the Zika case?

​Broadly speaking, it is interesting that it is mostly in developing countries where abortions are illegal (Figure 1 and Table 1). Anti-abortion laws were put into place at a time when most of the developing world was under colonial rule and the Church was a tool in securing that hold. Anti-abortion laws can themselves be traced back to the rule of Pope Pius IX as head of the Catholic Church in 1869. Prior to that, some factions may have looked down upon abortion, but it was not necessarily illegal. For the sake of human rights and specifically the health of women, the developed world began changing anti-abortion laws in the 1950s. Our governments (read men) still holding onto these laws at the expense of women’s health is a travesty of human rights.

Figure 1: 2011 world abortion laws. Credit
Table 1: Legality of abortion amongst African countries. Credit Guttmacher Institute

In 2008, only 3% of abortions in Africa were performed by qualified health practitioners and under acceptable health conditions. Most African women have to induce abortion themselves or go to traditional practitioners. A negative consequence is that at least 9% of maternal deaths reported across the continent are the result of unsafe abortions. I recently read a horrific account of a Zimbabwean woman who went to a traditional practitioner to get an abortion. He did it by inserting a stick to pierce her amniotic sac. He had told her it was an herb. Luckily she survived the haemorrhaging but many others are not so lucky. Before 2012, medical practitioners in Zimbabwe had to report to the police, women who came in for post-abortion treatment. Today, five times more women freely seek medical treatment following unsafe abortions. A small step that is hopefully just one of many more to come.