"Reproductive Health" and Other First-World Biases
Interview with Director of MaterCare International, Part 2
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The organization works in the Third World to provide health care for problems related to childbirth.
Q: At your recent conference in Rome, many leaders from Third and First World countries addressed medical, political and faith issues touching on the lives of Third World women and children. What do you think this meeting of minds is likely to produce?
Walley: First of all, may I just correct the term "conference"? This was the second workshop. The difference is important, in that it was a "shirt-sleeve meeting," designed not simply to talk but to get on and do things. Also, a medical conference conjures up the image of expense, of corporate sponsors. This was a low-key affair, in a beautiful retreat house, close to St. Peter's, where we worshiped, lived and discussed together for four days.
MaterCare has from the beginning adopted -- using the words of Vatican II -- a "preferential option for mothers" wherever they may be, as frequently mothers are of the poorest of the poor. Our mission is to provide mothers and babies both born and unborn with the best of medical care, based on life, hope and love, rather than the death and despair which is abortion, through new initiatives of essential obstetrical service, training of health workers, and research based on the ethics of "Evangelium Vitae."
We are demonstrating that, as Catholics, we can provide relevant health care for mothers. With that mission, we have become a unique professional organization, albeit in the embryonic stage of development.
We are challenging the medical status quo that bases the care of mothers on "reproductive health" -- a euphemism for abortion and birth control. Thus, we have few friends in governments, international health agencies or the professions. We need all the help we can get from colleagues and friends.
Q: You planned to meet with the Pope after your workshop. What does he have to say regarding your organization and its work?
Walley: While we actually did not meet with the Holy Father this year due to his busy schedule, we had very much in mind his words to obstetricians from the closing audience last year, that "their profession has become still more important and their response will be still greater in today's culture and social context, in which science and the practice of medicine risk losing sight of an ethical dimension, in which health care professionals are strongly tempted at times to become manipulators of life and even agents of death."
He concluded his address by issuing a challenge to the whole Church: "It is my fervent hope that, at the beginning of this new millennium, all Catholic medical and health care personnel, whether in research or practice, will commit themselves wholeheartedly to the service of human life. I trust that local churches will give due attention to the medical profession, promoting the ideal of unambiguous service to the great miracle of life, supporting obstetricians, gynecologists and health workers who respect the right to life, by helping to bring them together for mutual support and the exchange of ideas and experiences."
These challenges were reinforced again this year in various keynote address and homilies, given by the presidents of various congregations and councils.
Q: The mortality rate for expectant mothers in Africa is as high as 1 in 16. Yet almost all the Western aid money for "reproductive health" is spent on contraceptives and abortion. Why is this?
Walley: Most mothers in developing countries are poor and uneducated and have no voice to speak on their behalf. It is true that billions of dollars are spent on reproductive health and population control. AIDS and injuries from land mines are serious problems, but they are also political diseases. Maternal mortality is not of political importance, so there is neither the political will nor compassion to do what is needed.
Little is spent on providing women who want to be mothers with emergency obstetrics when complications arise. The West, in our view, is denying poor mothers their human right to adequate health care during pregnancy and childbirth when complications arise, and is thus discriminating against them.
Q: Does the appalling neglect of health for Third World mothers stem from an underlying assumption in Europe and the United States that pregnancy itself is the problem?
Walley: There is an antipathy toward motherhood in general in the West. Mothers in developed countries do have access to the best of care and thus maternal mortality and morbidity ratios are very low. We want the best for ourselves, but not for the poor in developing countries. It is an international disgrace that not enough is being done about the situation.
Q: Yet millions are spent in the First World on fertility treatments. The Western response seems almost explicitly racist.
Walley: I do believe it is racist. The conclusion that any reasonable person must come to, after reviewing current world maternal mortality, morbidity and abortion statistics, is that the world cares very little for mothers and their unborn children.
At this time of the year, we are forced to consider again the birth which brought about the most important event in human history, the Incarnation. Pope John Paul II, in his millennium letter, reminds us that we also celebrate the most important motherhood ever: "The Father chose a woman for a unique mission in the history of salvation: that of being the Mother of the long awaited Savior. The Virgin Mother responded with complete openness."
Motherhood has special significance for all Christians. Obstetricians and midwives share a unique and privileged vocation in the service to life. However, two of the greatest tragedies of our times concern the suffering and deaths of hundreds of thousands of mothers, and the deliberate killing of millions of unborn children. MaterCare won't change the world, but we think we can make a bit of a difference.