Next week, the Vatican will open the World Meeting of Families in Dublin, Ireland—just one month after the ominous anniversary of Humanae Vitae, the Vatican policy banning birth control. While the hierarchy “celebrates” 50 years of Humanae Vitae, a ban that has caused half a century of harm to the world’s poorest communities, and as we continue to see a wave of attacks against women’s reproductive rights at home and abroad, it is important to understand the role the doctrine has in shaping policy.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, women were taking charge over their lives like never before—look no further, for example, than the founding of Ms. and other outlets of feminist expression—and at the Second Vatican Council, which closed in 1965, the Catholic hierarchy issued reforms to better connect with the modern needs of its faithful. In light of these changes, Catholics were shocked when, in July 1968, Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae, reaffirming the hierarchy’s ban on contraception.
In the midst of what could have been a moment to bring the church up-to-date with the lived realities of women, Humane Vitae instead led to a profound disconnect between the hierarchy and its faithful—especially its women. The ban was not supported by the Vatican’s own birth control commission, and it was met with immediate disapproval by everyday Catholics. It was also a source of disappointment to John Rock—the founder of the birth control pill and a devout Catholic.
A Harris Poll in 1965 found that 52 percent of American Catholics thought the hierarchy should allow Catholics to use birth control and 33 percent were unsure. Today, that rift has only widened: In 2018, a poll of American Catholics by BRS and YouGov found that 83 percent disagree or are ambivalent about the ban; in majority Catholic Ireland, disapproval of the ban is even higher, at 91 percent; in Kenya, where the hierarchy is influential, 70 percent of Catholics disagree with or are unsure about the ban.
Despite its unpopularity, Humanae Vitae has guided innumerable policies that impact the ability of women to make free choices over their bodies—and the Catholic hierarchy’s political battles, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ fight against the Affordable Care Act’s birth control benefit and the hierarchy’s rejection of contraceptives in global family planning and HIV/AIDS prevention programs.
The most damning legacy of Humanae Vitae has been its impact on the world’s most underserved communities. While many Catholics in the developed world defy the ban on birth control, women in the developing world do not have that luxury. Today, an estimated 214 million women globally have an unmet need for contraception, which contributes to high rates of maternal mortality and stunts other efforts to end extreme poverty.
Despite these serious concerns, the Catholic hierarchy continues to strongly oppose modern contraception—especially on the African continent, which has the world’s lowest rate of contraceptive use and the most rapidly growing Catholic population globally.
The Catholic population across Africa has increased by 238 percent since 1980, and Catholics are predicted to account for nearly 25 percent of the population by 2040. Faith-based organizations affiliated with the Catholic Church in some of the most remote communities across Africa are on the ground providing food, water, shelter, healthcare and other basic needs to communities; in sub-Saharan Africa, faith-based organizations deliver drugs on average to 43 percent of the population.
Where local governments are weak in Africa, Catholic organizations are doing the work they can’t—and as a result, they often have credibility and trust from the communities they serve. When a government tries to implement a family planning program that the bishops disagree with, the bishops have a lot of power and influence to block these programs—and they wield it despite the negative impacts sure to come for women and girls. In Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya and other countries, national bishops’ conferences have put significant pressure on authorities to block family planning progress.
Kenya has made great strides in family planning—they have surpassed their Family Planning 2020 commitments over the past few years and are on track to achieve their 2020 target of 58 percent of contraceptive coverage two years early. This progress is not easily sustained—especially in hard-to-reach areas where Catholic and other faith-based facilities make up a lion’s share of the healthcare system and can deny contraception in their facilities. Faith-based facilities provide healthcare services to more than 40 percent of Kenyans.
Humanae Vitae has also impacted access to birth control for underserved communities in the U.S. Under President Trump, the bishops and other religious conservatives have fought to expand refusal clauses to allow corporations to deny birth control coverage to working women for “moral” or religious reasons, and more recently, the administration reshaped the nation’s Title X program—the only federal program dedicated solely to affordable family planning and sexual care for low-income patients—to limit care for patients who rely on it. The Department of Health and Human Services’ new guidelines mandate that Title X providers place a “meaningful emphasis” on abstinence and do not make any mention of contraception or abortion.
Catholics the world over have soundly rejected Humanae Vitae and its out-of-touch approach to the very moral needs of women—but it continues to guide policies that impact Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Sadly, those impacted most by this doctrine are the women around the world who continue to live in conditions in which their right to make their own ethical decisions over their bodies and their lives are denied to them.