The Power of Choice

As a human rights practitioner (and someone whose life choices have been profoundly shaped by a Catholic education) specializing in women rights, I am often asked what can change the script for women. I answer without hesitation: give them the power to decide when and if they want to start a family and how many children they want to have. In other words, give them access to reliable contraception. There is a significant body of research that shows that, when women can make these most intimate of decisions without interference by church or state, they improve not only their quality of life but also the lives of their families and communities.

Access to contraception is firmly grounded in human rights, including the right of both women and men to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children, and yet hundreds of millions of women do not have access to safe and reliable contraception. The lack of access to both contraception and information has profoundly harmful consequences: women cannot protect themselves from HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, many will seek unsafe and illegal abortions—putting their lives at risk—and some will die from pregnancy-related causes. Access to modern forms of contraception can prevent these harms and can, in some cases, literally save lives.

As the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae dawns, women continue to suffer discrimination and exclusion as a result of their inability to prevent pregnancy. I hope, as someone for whom the Catholic church has been a profoundly important influence, that the hierarchy will take heed of the unnecessary pain and suffering of these women and recognize that it’s time to undo the harm that the ban on contraception has caused and is causing.

Executive Director: Women’s Rights Division, Human Rights Watch
New York, NY

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