Bishops criticise Government proposals to 'hard-wire' abortion and contraceptive services into overseas development programmes

Government proposals to “hard-wire” abortion and contraceptive services into overseas development programmes have been criticised by the English and Welsh bishops.

Church leaders issued a statement the day before the closure of the public consultation phase closed for Choice for Women: Wanted Pregnancies, Safe Births.

The proposals by the Department for International Development (DFID) seek to further development by giving women across the developing world “unprecedented” access to “safe” abortion and modern methods of contraception.

The Government argues that the new approach is necessary to meet the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of reducing by three-quarters the maternal mortality ratios of poor countries by 2015 from their positions in 1990. But a spokesman for the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales said the proposals were “deeply regrettable”.

“Maternal mortality is of great importance to the Catholic Church and it wholeheartedly supports international efforts to make childbirth safer,” he said. “It is a scandal that hundreds of thousands of women die in childbirth every year. The Church therefore welcomes the commitment of the British Government to make progress on this millennium development goal.

“It is deeply regrettable, however, that the DFID has tied this urgent issue to the quite different goal of ‘wanted pregnancies’ that is, to the reduction of pregnancy rates in the developing world through provision of contraception and, explicitly, of abortion. The Church urges the DFID to distinguish between these two very different agendas of ‘wanted pregnancies’ and ‘safe births’. If DFID develops programmes that are transparent in being dedicated to making pregnancy safer then these could attract wider support from the churches, from governments and from non-governmental organisations.”

The Catholic Church is the world’s second-largest international development body after the United Nations.

A large percentage of hospitals in Africa are operated by faith-based organisations, with the Catholic Church responsible for one quarter of all healthcare provision. Globally, it runs 5,246 hospitals, 17,530 dispensaries, 577 leprosy clinics, 15,208 houses for the elderly and chronically ill and people with physical and learning difficulties worldwide and Catholic agencies provide a quarter of all HIV care in Africa.

The Pope has expressed his willingness for the Holy See to work more closely with the Britain in the provision of aid. But in July Andrew Mitchell, the Secretary of State for International Development, told a conference in London that the Government was preparing to push family planning services in the poorest countries of the world.

Reproductive and maternal health was “the most off-track” of all the MDGs, he said. “The international community has failed to assist millions of women by ignoring the complexities of why at least a third of a million women in the world’s poorest countries die during pregnancy and childbirth each year. For too long we’ve been trying to tackle the issue with one hand tied behind our backs.

“The Department for International Development will now have an unprecedented focus on family planning, which will be hard-wired into all our country programmes.”

A spokeswoman for DFID said concrete proposals would be formulated only after the 12-week consultation exercise, which ended on Wednesday. She said there were “no suggestions” that the Government would impose abortion and contraception services as a condition of receiving development aid.

But a Government press statement from July said a key focus of any new policy will be to combat unsafe abortion. It claimed that there were 70,000 deaths a year from an estimated 20 million unsafe abortions, with about eight million women also needing medical treatment for complications arising from them.

“Ensuring abortion services are safe, and that post-abortion care is provided, saves lives,” the statement said. “And increasing access to family planning will avert many thousands of unintended pregnancies and abortions every year.”

The statement also claimed that 215 million women in poor countries would like to either delay or avoid their next pregnancy but had no access to “modern family planning methods” such as “implants, injectables and intrauterine devices”.

“Increasing access could prevent up to 30 per cent of all maternal deaths and 20 per cent of newborn deaths,” it said.