While the Catholic Church across the world opposes abortion and birth control, in Kerala, which has the largest Catholic community in India, birth control is a way of life, with couples widely adopting abortion as a means of birth control.
Kerala’s Catholics, arguably the most prosperous community in terms of wealth, education, number of professionals, representation in the administration and the capacity to influence government policies, has been enthusiastic about birth control as a means to a better future for the family for decades. Many commentators have pointed out that the small family norm had helped the Christian community achieve its current educational advancements as a small family could focus its attention and resources on educating fewer offspring. Better education, coupled with other factors, helped the community scale social and economic heights. Better empowerment of Christian women, through education and employment, than of women in other communities has been a direct offshoot of smaller families.
Alphons Kannanthanam, former IAS officer and former MLA, says the Catholic community had long back adopted the government’s family planning and birth control measures wholeheartedly and has benefited from them. He told The Hindu that the Catholics were much more receptive to family planning and birth control than any other community in the country. He recalled that family planning had been most successful in Kottayam district, which had the largest Catholic population among all the 14 districts in Kerala.
“While I was the Collector of Kottayam for four years, I received the most support from Catholics in implementing family planning programmes,” he said.
Despite the strong stand taken by the Vatican against birth control, the different Catholic Rites in Kerala had been lukewarm about it as the community as a whole favoured small families. “Though the Catholics attend church every Sunday and revere the Pope, when it comes to economic decision-making, they go by their own economic interests,” Mr. Kannanthanam remarked. “Since fewer children make better economic sense, they naturally took to family planning and birth control in a big way.”
Healthcare professionals point out that the number of abortions (medical termination of pregnancy) being done in Kerala hospitals is very high. Married women sought abortions for spacing childbirths and for employment reasons. Though statistics are hard to come by, one source said that in her experience, Christian married women had an edge in those seeking abortion. This was for reasons of higher education, employment and job prospects abroad.
The huge majority of educated or employed women in Kerala, with not much divergence between religions, these days want to put an end to their fertility after the second child is born. “I invariably get a request from middle-class wives to ‘get it stopped’ before they enter the labour room,” a woman doctor said.
The Kerala Catholic Church, which had earlier soft-pedalled its stance on abortions and birth control, started taking a fresh view from the late 1990s. One reason was the aggressive campaign by the Vatican since 1995, and the other, more important, reason was demographics.
Church authorities noticed that in spite of the increasing prosperity and social visibility of Christians, their population was slowly shrinking. Census figures showed that the rate of growth of the Christian population was below the replacement level of 2.1 children per couple. The Church was directly hit by the fall in population — it found it hard to find children willing to become priests and nuns.
The Kerala Catholic Bishops Council (KCBC) has taken several steps to buck the trend: advocacy, incentives for couples opting for more children and children’s education support. It asked Catholic-run hospitals not to carry out abortions and discourage family planning operations. To step up the campaign against abortions, the council has set up a Pro-Life Movement under its Family Commission.
In the aftermath of Savita Halappanvar’s death in an Ireland hospital, which put the Catholic Church on the defensive over its “archaic” stand on abortion, the council has come out with a clarification.
“Abortion is the direct and intentional destruction of an unborn baby; abortion is murder of the unborn child,” the KCBC spokesman said in a statement. “Where any harm is caused, indirectly and unintentionally, to the health or life of the unborn child consequent on any medical treatment given to save the life of a pregnant woman, the same is not considered abortion. This is the stand taken by Catholic Church on this matter.”
Question of sin
Fr. Paul Thelakat, consulting editor of Sathya Deepam and spokesperson for the Synod of Bishops of the Syro-Malabar Church, told The Hindu that the Church considered abortion a sin. But abortion could take place while treating the mother to save her life.
“This is surely not sinful,” he said. “Had the people concerned followed Catholic morality, Savita’s life could have perhaps been saved.”
Fr. Thelakat, however, regretted that the Church was being faulted for Savita’s death.
“It is sad and unfortunate that the Catholic Church’s morality is attacked on account of her death,” he said.