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My twitter stream is buzzing once again after a statement made by the German Bishops’ Conference. According to the Bishops’ Conference, Catholic hospitals are permitted to prescribe the Morning After Pill to rape victims entrusted to their care. Cardinal Meisner, considered to be conservative and close friends with Pope Benedict XVI, explains to Catholic website kath.net why this decision was made:
Morning After Pill, Rape and ‘Criminal Fertilization’
Joachim Cardinal Meisner, Archbishop of Cologne, released another statement today about the Morning After Pill. After being presented with new medical evidence, he concludes that this doesn’t necessary mean Mifepriston (RU 486, “Mifegyne”), which the Catholic Church disapproves of.
In a statement, the Archbishops writes:
“I have consulted several experts about the question of the morning after pill. It became clear that this name is used for several distinct drugs with distinct effects. These effects and side effects become clearer as the scientific discussion progresses. This means that there are certain ethical consequences.
When after a rape a drug is administered which has as the main effect prevention of fertilization and is given with the intent to prevent fertilization, this is, according to my opinion, allowed.
When a drug is administered that has as its main effect prevention of implantation and is given with the intent to prevent the implantation of an already fertilized egg, this is not allowed, because a fertilized egg is worthy of the protection of human life, when it’s being actively denied to grow. The fact that fertilized eggs can die in natural circumstances, doesn’t allow people to actively imitate these natural phenomenons because the end of a human life by Nature is death by natural causes, consciously imitating this is called killing.
Health workers, working in Catholic health care institutions are to help raped women in need and they need to act according to the latest medical developments, keeping the principles mentioned above in mind. There is no objection to Catholic health care professionals explain accessibility of methods that aren’t allowed in the opinion of Catholicism, when they, without putting any kind of pressure on the patient, explain the position of the Catholic Church regarding these methods. It is important to note that the help of rape victims should have priority over discourses explaining the Catholic teachings.
Statement of the Archdiocese of Cologne’s Spokesperson
Until now, the assumption was that the main effect of drugs called ‘morning after pill’ is the prevention of implantation. (Prevention of implantation means that an already fertilized egg is prevented from nesting in the wall of the uterus). Apparently, this is no longer the case in modern science. The Church has to take new medical insights into account while taking a stance. The nature of these kinds of stances is that they are often controversial. The Church can only explain the moral principles. Every single doctor in a Catholic hospital has to educate himself over these principles so he can make justified decisions.
While making a decision, a doctor needs to decide, according to his own scientific assessment, if a certain drug has an effect that causes prevention of implantation. At the other hand, it’s well-known that a lot of drugs and behaviors have side-effects which damage, and in extreme cases kill, a developing human life. These effects should be of course minimized. It’s impossible to completely exclude these possibilities. According to the teachings of Pope Pius XII, for example, some painkillers are allowed to be administered to dying patients, even when their side-effects are shortening their lives.
The instruction “Dignitatis Personae” from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, from September 8, 2008, mentions under “Interceptiva” the “so called morning after pill”, but only mentions the prevention of implantation as its effect when carefully formulating: “It must be noted, however, that anyone who seeks to prevent the implantation of an embryo which may possibly have been conceived and who therefore either requests or prescribes such a pharmaceutical, generally intends abortion.” (link) The principles of this instruction remain, but we need to differentiate in case of the morning after pill.
We want to stress that the Archbishop’s statement only refers to cases of rape and not to situations in a sacramental marriage, which is being discussed in the encyclical “Humanae Vitae“.
In the same way, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith already permitted religious sisters, working in an area of the world where they have to fear rape, to take contraceptives. When speaking about rape, it’s not about the wholeness of an act of love, but about hindering a criminal fertilization.
Source: ‘Pille danach’, Vergewaltigung und ‘verbrecherische Befruchtung’ on kath.net
I have received reactions through email, Facebook and Twitter from concerned Catholics. Most of these replies voice bewilderment and sometimes even anger. To their understanding, they write, interference with a possible pregnancy is never allowed, even when it concerns rape.
Educating before opiniating
We must remind ourselves that we lay people have limited understanding of the wide scope of Church teachings, we often lack the proper theological and/or philosophical background to make a proper assessment. We are called to obedience, which doesn’t mean that we can’t be critical, but we need to know what our place is in this debate. Inform yourself first, ask an expert for his opinion if you must and form an opinion after that, not the other way around.
Someone pointed me to “Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services”, 5th edition, Issued by the United States Conference of Bishops on November 17, 2009. In section 3, directive 36 it is stated that:
“Compassionate and understanding care should be given to a person who is the victim of sexual assault. Health care providers should cooperate with law enforcement officials and offer the person psychological and spiritual support as well as accurate medical information. A female who has been raped should be able to defend herself against a potential conception from the sexual assault. If, after appropriate testing, there is no evidence that conception has occurred already, she may be treated with medications that would prevent ovulation, sperm capitation, or fertilization. It is not permissible, however, to initiate or to recommend treatments that have as their purpose or direct effect the removal, destruction, or interference with the implantation of a fertilized ovum.“
Don’t assume, make sure you know
This is the same line as chosen by the German Bishops’ Conference. A lot of Catholics didn’t know about this. A lot of Catholic Health Care workers didn’t know about this either, denying rape victims treatment because they thought Catholic teaching wasn’t allowing this, where in fact Catholic teaching DOES allow treatment. This is serious business, because rape victims weren’t getting the help they were supposed to get in a Catholic Hospital due to misunderstanding, but well-meaning Catholic health care workers.
It is never good enough to assume that you know what the Church teaches, in these cases you must do your research so you know. Cardinal Meisner felt it was necessary to make very clear what can and cannot be done in these cases, and it seems like the USCCB felt they had to do the same.
No, there’s no turnaround for the Catholic Church in their position towards treatment of rape victims, but bishops put more effort into communicating existing principles to the people on the ground. I’m very happy they do that.