The Religious Consultation
on Population, Reproductive Health  and Ethics

 revisiting the world's sacred traditions




APRIL 1-15, 2005


Catholic Church

Reuters reported April 6 that Catholics who are struggling worldwide to care for large families amid grinding poverty and an AIDS pandemic faced a dilemma over Pope John Paul II's opposition to contraception. Some hope that will change under his successor. Reuters reported April 11 that Thoraya Obaid, head of UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, said: "We are hoping the new pope will take this message further, because it makes no sense sending people to their death. We hope that all positions would focus on what is really needed to fight...HIV and take the morally correct decision on how to do that." Read: Reuters, Agence France-Presse

In the Reuters story, Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, said the Vatican's current position is dangerous because Catholic health agencies provide treatment to about a quarter of all HIV victims and are major recipients of aid: "The longer these people survive thanks to the good treatment by the church, the more opportunities they have to infect others. It's a losing situation.” Read: Reuters

Brazil: Reuters reported April 6 that Brazil, the world's largest Catholic country, saw a decline of 15 percent in the number of adherents during the 26 years of John Paul's papacy. "Many people in these areas now declare themselves nonreligious…because they disagree with some religious principles, among them no contraception," said Prof. Cesar Romero Jacob of Rio de Janeiro's Pontifical Catholic University. Unlike its work in some other countries, the church does not create obstacles to the Brazilian government campaign for greater condom use, including free distribution. Read: Reuters

Africa: The Boston Globe (U.S.) reported April 11 that in AIDS work, Vatican rules and African realities often clash, and the fallout can be harsh and divisive, at times prompting decisions against Rome's dictates. Church officials from Senegal to Lesotho, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said in interviews that they distributed condoms in certain cases, such as when only one spouse is HIV-positive, or when people routinely have sex outside committed relationships. The Washington Post reported April 9 that Bishop Kevin Dowling of Rustenberg, South Africa, perhaps that country’s best-known Catholic advocate for condom use, said "The bottom line is to be pro-life, consistently pro-life, from conception until death. We can't save all lives, but we can save some lives through the use of condoms." Read: Boston Globe, Washington Post

Reuters reported April 15 that Uganda is often cited as an African success story in fighting AIDS, having cut HIV infection rates to around 6 percent of the population from 30 percent in the early 1990s. Many Ugandans attribute President Yoweri Museveni's government's success to its early frankness about condoms, in contrast to the silence of many African leaders, but ministers are increasingly emphasizing abstinence and fidelity.

Philippines: International Herald Tribune reported April 7 that at the center of the debate between the Church and the Philippine government is the assertion by officials and economists that the country's rapid population growth is threatening to counteract any economic gains. The Church accuses the government of twisting the facts. There is no population explosion, and blaming population growth for the country's poverty is disingenuous, it said. Read: International Herald Tribune

Islamic Clerics Argue over Sex Education

Associated Press reported April 6 that in response to questions about sexual education, Egypt's most senior Islamic cleric rejected any attempts to introduce sex education into schools if it discusses safe sex and abortions. Sheik Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, the head of Al-Azhar, one of the oldest and most prominent Muslim scholarly institutions, told a regular meeting of clerics that students in al-Azhar institutes already learn about sex "in a way that doesn't stir instincts, or offend public morality.” Tantawi said, "It is better than teaching sex to school students and permitting the so-called safe abortion and calling for equality between man and woman through gender culture." Government ministries and civil groups in Egypt have been trying to find ways to teach reproductive health and HIV/AIDS prevention without raising religious objections, usually by treating it as an issue of health rather than sex. Read: Associated Press

Iran Examines Easing Abortion Law

Agence France-Presse reported April 10 that Iran's conservative-dominated parliament is considering legislation to allow abortion in the first four months of pregnancy if the woman's life is in danger or the fetus is deformed. The bill, which does not espouse the right to choice, would require parents’ consent as well as confirmation of the diagnosis by three doctors and the coroner’s office. Any doctor performing such procedures would no longer face punishment. Such a law would be subject to approval by the Guardians’ Council, a hard-line body that screens all laws for compliance with Islamic law and Iran's constitution. Read: Agence France-Presse


Associated Press reported April 5 that the U.S. Senate voted to lift the “global gag rule” restrictions on U.S. family planning aid to health centers abroad that promote or perform abortions. Despite the 52-46 vote, supporters will have a tough time changing the law since the U.S. House has consistently voted to maintain the restrictions and President Bush has threatened to veto such bills. The vote to end the ban came as an amendment by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Patti Murray (D-WA) and Olympia Snowe (R-ME) during debate on a State Department funding bill. Boxer said the restrictions deny health centers overseas the right to use their own money to provide health care options for women. "It is very important to make sure that women around the world are given the health care they deserve," Boxer said.

The Detroit Free Press (U.S.) April 11 editorial urged: “The Bush administration is putting a lot of energy into building up women's political rights worldwide, a goal worth celebrating. But political strength means little without physical strength, and for women, reproductive health is a key component of well-being.” A Seattle Post-Intelligencer (U.S.) April 7 editorial concluded: “Even if the House of Representatives goes along with the Senate, the president might veto the repeal. But gags on foreign physicians contradict talk about the United States advancing freedom for all.” Read: Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, United Press International, Detroit Free Press, Seattle Post-Intelligencer


At the U.N. Commission on Population and Development (CPD) April 4-8, the keynote speaker, Dr. Paulo Texeira, senior coordinator of Sao Paulo's AIDS program, said a false dilemma between prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS had caused unnecessary losses, wasted precious time and should be avoided in the future, reported UN News Centre on April 7. Reuters reported April 7 that Texeira also said, “Based on international experiences, today there is no evidence whatsoever that moral recommendations, such as abstinence and fidelity, have any impact that might prevent infection and curb the epidemic."

Inter Press Service reported April 6 that as expected, the United States had once again raised the politically divisive issue of abortion, refusing at the CPD to unanimously reaffirm the landmark Programme of Action from the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD). Werner Fornos, president of Population Institute, argued against the decision, noting that paragraph 8.25 of the Programme of Action clearly states ”in no case should abortion be promoted as a method of family planning.” Read: UN News Centre, Reuters, Inter Press Service


Associated Press reported April 11 that the Swedish government and UNFPA jointly organized a summit on global poverty and its connection to women's rights and reproductive health. The meeting urged the international community to increase its support for improving women's rights in the Third World. UNFPA head Thoraya Obaid said the world has failed to live up to the ICPD Programme of Action to slow growth in population and demand equality for women, including access to modern birth control. "We haven't even reached the 2000 goal we've set for ourselves," Thoraya said, referring to the annual $17 billion investment the Cairo plan called for by 2000. Obaid said she hoped to get an ally in the next pope and that he "would see that part of eradicating poverty is allowing people to plan their families."


ABC Radio (Australia) reported April 13 that International Planned Parenthood Federation Director-General Steven W. Sinding said Pacific Island states should band together to reject the Bush administration’s plan to deny funding to foreign non-government organizations unless they separate AIDS programs from family planning services. Sinding said Pacific Island states can't effectively address the AIDS pandemic without providing strong and consistent access to reproductive health services. Read: ABC Radio


WHO Report on Maternal and Child Health

At the launch of the World Health Organization’s 2005 report, “Make Every Mother and Child Count,” WHO chief Lee Jong Wook, said: "More than three million babies are stillborn and four million newborns die within the first days or weeks of their lives. Over six million of these children can be saved with simple health methods like rehydration and breastfeeding. Likewise, thousands of women can be saved if they have access to skilled childbirth care." UN News Centre reported April 7 that UNFPA head Thoraya Obaid stressed that far too many women are deprived of access to basic health services that are fundamental to their human rights. She said the WHO report findings were “a public health crisis and a moral outrage.” Read: Agence France-Presse, BBC News, USA Today, Reuters, UN News Centre

Kenya’s Budget Does Not Include Funds for Reproductive Health

Inter Press Service reported April 12 that UNFPA’s call on governments to increase spending on reproductive health may prove hard for Kenya. Dr. Josephine Kibaru, head of reproductive health services at Kenya’s health ministry, said. “The budget we have for reproductive health is meant for meetings – for example, salaries for staff of the department. We have no specific budgetary fund to procure contraceptives. This is serious because it means more women may continue dying from pregnancy.” Dr. Josephine Moyo of Ipas said, “The world only responds to crises which are visible; for example, a crash or an explosion. But every minute when a woman dies, it is nothing because she is dying silently and invisibly, and it is viewed as a problem for her family. She is left to die and she just becomes part of statistics.” Read: Inter Press Service

First Graduating Class of Afghan Midwives

Agence France-Presse reported April 14 that the first generation of professional midwives to undergo full training has graduated in Afghanistan, where maternal and child mortality are the world’s worst. In all, 138 trainees from more than 20 provinces completed a two-year course at the Afghan institute of health science, funded by USAID and the Aga Khan Development Network. Under a USAID grant, some 830 new midwives are expected to be trained by 2006. Read: Agence France-Presse; BBC News

Saudi Arabia Bans Forced Marriage

Associated Press reported April 13 that Saudi clerics took a stand against forcing women into marriage, saying fathers who try to force their daughters to marry should be jailed until they change their minds. The board of top clerics ruled that coercing women into marriage is "a major injustice" and "un-Islamic," said a statement issued by the kingdom's mufti, Sheik Abdul-Aziz bin Al al-Sheik. Read: Associated Press, BBC News


United Kingdom to Fund Research into Microbicides

BBC News reported April 5 that the U.K. government will provide £24 million to assess how well a microbicide gel can prevent HIV infection in women. Hilary Benn, International Development Secretary, said: "Women vulnerable to infection are frequently unable to refuse sex or to insist on the use of a condom.” Nick Partridge, director of the HIV charity Terrence Higgins Trust said: “The development of a microbicide would be a significant step forward in the fight against HIV…in the short term, promoting condom use and good sex education are essential.” On April 14, Associated Press reported the gel could be developed within four years, according to Peter Piot, director general of UNAIDS: "We need ways that protect women and that are under the control of women, and preferably where the male partner would not even know the woman is using it." Read: BBC News, Agence France-Presse, Associated Press

Congressional Hearing on AIDS Funding Discusses Effectiveness Abstinence

Voice of America reported April 13 that the effectiveness of sexual abstinence versus use of condoms in the global fight against AIDS was discussed at length during a congressional hearing that heard from U.S. global AIDS coordinator Randall Tobias and representatives of non-government organizations. Geeta Rao Gupta, president of the International Center for Research on Women, said the ABC approach alone is insufficient to deal with the widening scope of the AIDS pandemic, particularly in Africa where U.N. statistics show women and girls are 57 percent of more than 25 million people living with AIDS: "This inexorable rise in infections among women demands special attention and immediate action, action that must go beyond the ABC approach,” she said. “That approach, while necessary to contain the AIDS epidemic, is not sufficient to address the underlying vulnerabilities that contribute to women's risk of infection." Read: Voice of America

Nevirapine Controversy Involving United States Cleared

Associated Press reported April 7 that controversial U.S. research in Africa that violated federal patient protection rules was still conducted well enough to support its conclusions that the AIDS drug nevirapine could be used safely to protect babies from the disease, an expert scientific panel has concluded. "The committee finds that there is no reason based in ethical concerns about the design or implementation of the study that would justify excluding its findings from use in scientific and policy deliberations," the Institutes of Medicine Panel said in a report obtained by The Associated Press. The report will be welcomed as good news at the National Institutes of Health, the federal agency that funded the nevirapine study in Uganda and which has been engulfed in months of controversy. Read: Associated Press


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