In what some see as a giant step forward for the Catholic Church, the German Bishops’ Conference said on Thursday that church-run hospitals can now give rape victims the medication known as the “morning-after” pill. This follows consultation with medical experts who have long known that the pill does not abort fertilized eggs. Rather, it prevents sperm from reaching eggs by delaying ovulation. The “morning-after” nickname doesn’t refer to the morning after fertilization, but the morning after intercourse–or after the violent act of rape.
The move came following an outcry over a rape victim who sought treatment last month at two Catholic Hospitals in Cologne, Germany and was turned away by both because they did not want to counsel her on emergency contraception. The woman feared she had been raped after she was drugged at a party and awoke on a park bench. Eventually, she was treated at a Protestant church-run facility.
In immediate reaction to the scandal, Cardinal Joachim Meisner of Cologne made the unilateral decision to offer emergency contraception in the city’s Catholic hospitals, saying the incident “shames us deeply because it contradicts our Christian mission and our purpose”. The announcement by the Bishops Conference covers all Catholic-run hospitals in Germany.
Before anyone gets too excited about the newfound compassion of the Church, a couple of relevant factors should be considered. The German lay movement “Wir sind Kirche” (We are the Church) believes the decision was made so that the Church wouldn’t lose state subsidies for their hospitals. Others point to the fact that the Church is rapidly losing members, partly due to the accusation that it practices sexual discrimination. Over 181,000 German Catholics left the Church in 2010, with 126,000 exiting in 2011.
The German press has been ambivalent about the bishops’ announcement. The daily Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote:
“One has to be extremely orthodox to find unethical a women’s wish to avoid pregnancy following rape, whether the egg has been fertilized or not. Legally, the situation is clear: As long as the egg has not yet become implanted in the uterus, preventing pregnancy is not considered an abortion. The discussion among the bishops as to whether the morning-after pill only prevents rather than disrupts a pregnancy seems like it is from a different galaxy.
“Yet Thursday’s decision could still be an important step for the Catholic Church. … It shows acceptance of the fact that there are gray areas…”
The liberal daily Die Tageszeitung had a pithier response regarding the effect for women:
“The rationale presented by the German bishops for their reversal on the ‘morning-after’ pill is almost touching. They didn’t change their minds; rather medical advances have made the shift permissible. Beyond that, everything stays the same: using the pill as a means of family planning remains forbidden as does ordination for women.
“That won’t be enough to confront the deep crisis facing the Catholic Church in Germany. Even conservative Catholics have lost faith in the church, and the church has distanced itself from many of the faithful. The bishops might see their faint-hearted reforms as a great step. For the public it looks at best like a purely cosmetic improvement that will do little to change the devastating image the church in Germany has developed in recent years.”
As always, contraception remains a deeply divisive issue, still at the heart of how conservative elements attempt to control women. Whether the decision of the German Church has any effect on the American Catholic Church, or any tempering influence on this country’s religious right, remains in doubt–at least until financial consequences become obvious enough, and painful enough.