Brazilians Face Population Dilemma
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In Brazil, a more haphazard revolution has come from the bottom up, belatedly prompting government officials to adopt a more organized approach to family planning. One result is that the government is starting to encourage access to a wider range of birth-control methods, including diaphragms, intrauterine devices, con- doms, and various natural means.Skip to next paragraph
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In terms of attitudes toward family planning, "Brazil is like Berlin a month before the wall came down," notes Dr. Burgess.
"The government is on the verge of becoming much more pro-active on the subject."
Although the diminishing resistance of local church officials has been one factor leading to a significant 30-year decline in Brazil's population-growth rate, experts say it has not been the main factor. Indeed, the officially held view of the church has simply ceased to be dominant as larger economic factors, including the pressures of urbanization, have influenced the reproductive decisions of tens of millions of Roman Catholic faithful around the world.
In Brazil, slower population-growth rates date back to the 1950s, when large numbers of people began leaving the countryside to take jobs in the cities created by a growing postwar economy. There, the admonition of one recent pope that "large families are most blessed by God" lost its appeal in the face of high costs, high unemployment, and scant and expensive housing.
"Women advanced more by omission of [clear instructions from] the church," says Maria Jose Rosado Nunes, who has studied women leaders in poor "base communities" linked to the progressive, or "liberation," wing of the church.
"They have the ability to sift through feminism and through [liberation theology and other church teachings] and see what meets their own interests," adds Ms. Nunes, who last month organized a seminar among women theologians and feminists on theology and reproductive rights, a first in Brazil.
In the 1970s, the Brazilian government conceded that contraception was a personal right and began to allow family-planning institutions to become active in Brazil.
But Brazil's ruling generals backed off from any official policy or program, concerned about creating a new problem with a church that was pushing them hard on human-rights issues.
There was no federal family-planning program in Brazil until 1984, a year before the military left power, and today the program has been implemented in only 60 percent of the nation's public-health service.
But the pace of change is increasing, spurred by a recent provision in Brazil's new constitution acknowledging a woman's right to family planning, a provision that had the tacit approval of the country's Catholic hierarchy.
One private health-maintenance organization (HMO) in Brazil is currently providing family-planning services in its insurance coverage. The practice, which would have been unthinkable even two years ago, is expected to be adopted soon by dozens of other HMOs around the country.
Despite the revolution at the grass-roots level, the reproductive independence of Catholics is not likely to have an impact any time soon on official church policy, which still strictly forbids fertility control, the use of contraceptives, and abortion. Guided by such convictions, the Vatican lobbied hard, and with partial success, against including population issues on the agenda of last month's UN Conference on the Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro.
But for women throughout the Catholic world, church policy is as far removed from daily decisions as their local parish is from the Vatican.
Poor women "know the Catholic Church thinks abortion is wrong, but they don't know the Catholic Church is against family planning," says Anne Archibald, a former nun who helps to organize women's groups in a low-income Sao Paulo neighborhood.
"It doesn't fit into their daily reality, and if they can go to the drugstore and get pills, they're going to make their own decisions."