Brazilians Face Population Dilemma

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

THE local paper mill in this southern city of 65,000 began a family-planning program in 1977 for its employees, which helped bring the average number of children per couple down to 2.2, from more than five. Today the program has expanded beyond the mill, with the Klabin Company offering its resources and expertise to the population at large, in concert with the city government.

"At the beginning, the [Roman Catholic] Church was radically against this. But today, seeing the relevance and social usefulness of it, the priests and nuns are our allies," says Virgilio Castello Branco, the mill's administrative director.

Questioned in a telephone interview, the local Catholic bishop, Dom Murilo Sebastiao Ramos Krieger, at first says he has no knowledge of the Klabin program. After making inquiries with the local priest about it, he later explains: "It's impossible to fight these things in every corner of the country. The city serves everyone; the church serves its own. It gives a general orientation [on birth-control policy but] ... the method of Christ was to show the ideal, not to use coercion."

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Some top church officials here have expressed concern about the growing use of birth control in the world's largest Roman Catholic country. But even they appear resigned to the new reality - long familiar in the industrialized nations - that most Catholics have come to separate their reproductive decisions from their faith. In the process, they have removed one major barrier to solving the problem of runaway population growth.

"The increasing acceptance of contraception and family planning by Catholics will contribute significantly to global efforts to reduce population-growth rates," says a senior United Nations population expert, who asked not to be named.

The determination to make individual decisions is one manifestation of a historic transformation of attitudes toward family planning that has taken place in the shadow of a church that has long opposed efforts to interfere with conception.

It is reflected in a widening division of views within the church itself as local clerics and parishioners, faced daily with the grim consequences of rapid urbanization and overpopulation in Latin America and Africa, part ways with the strict mandate of Rome.

"Is the Roman Catholic Church against family planning?" asks Paul Burgess, a former priest and Vatican official who is an expert on population issues. "If by the church you mean the hierarchy and the bishops in Rome, the answer is yes. If by the church you mean the clergy and the laity, the answer is no. At the level where it counts, the Catholic Church practices birth control.

"Of course local priests don't support family planning and the use of contraceptives publicly," he adds. "But most turn a blind eye."

"The issue of controlling births is very delicate," comments church spokesman Almir Ribeiro Guimaraes, family-affairs adviser to the Brazilian National Bishops Council in Brasilia. "The church supports natural methods of birth control. But it is against abortive methods and all other methods which affect nature. This is because of our profound respect for life."

Because a papal encyclical bans modern methods of birth control, family-planning agencies in Latin America have often sidestepped direct confrontation with the church. They have based their arguments for child-spacing, for example, on the need to protect the health of mother and child, without reference to limiting family size.

The most effective argument used with local clerics has been that if the church is serious about stopping abortion it must back family planning to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies.

In countries like Mexico and Colombia, aggressive government-backed programs have gone largely unopposed by local church leaders and have contributed to dramatic reductions in the average number of children per family, according to the Population Reference Bureau in Washington.

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.

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."

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