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Many US Catholics Out of Step with Church on Contraception, Abortion

Recent surveys of American Catholics indicate that many are out of step with the Vatican's teachings on contraception and abortion. With Pope Benedict visiting the United States beginning April 15, some Catholics are asking the church to take another look at these issues. VOA's Jeff Swicord reports.

The views of many American Catholic women on sexual issues seem clear. The National Survey of Family Growth says 97 percent of them have used modern contraception. The National Catholic Reporter shows that 58 percent believe they do not have to follow the teachings of their bishop on abortion. Jon O'Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, says he hopes the pope is listening.

"I hope that he uses the opportunity of being here in the United States to hear from people about some of the difficulties, some of the problems, and the challenges that we face in the Catholic Church," O’Brien said.

The Roman Catholic church has been opposed to any form of artificial birth control since the 1930s. The church teaches that sex should only take place within the context of marriage using natural methods of birth control.

Law professor Helen Alvare is former legal council for the National Conference of Bishops, and works on pro-life initiatives. She says, "Natural family planning is Catholic Church's sort of research and response to this. It is a scientifically based process for a woman tracking her fertile and non-fertile periods. People use it just as much to achieve pregnancy as they do to avoid one."

O'Brien says natural contraception is not realistic in today's world. He says it often leads to unwanted pregnancies, and an abortion rate for Catholics that is equal to the general public. "Where Catholics have access to contraception, they use it in spite of what the church says,” O’Brien said. “And that causes an alienation of most ordinary Catholics from the institution"

The church's policy of abstinence before marriage and natural contraception has also drawn criticism from groups dealing with HIV and AIDS. O'Brien says the church's policies are inhibiting the fight against the epidemic. "When the United States government was deciding to spend billions of dollars in some of the poorest parts of the world on HIV and AIDS prevention, the church, the Catholic hierarchy, lobbied hard to stop family planning from being included in that. And they won," he said.

There is evidence that the abstinence message has helped in some cases. Helen Alvare says it is no time for the church to tone down its message. "Do I think we should shut up, absolutely not. Do I think we will get an absolute win, absolutely not. But I know our message is true and it has evidence that supports it," she said.

Abortion has long been a controversial issue in the United States. Rev. Arne Panula is a priest in Washington and a member of Opus Dei, a conservative Catholic organization. He says the church's teaching on abortion is very clear.

"The principle that the church is upholding here is that it is never right to take an innocent life,” Panula said. “No matter how that life is conceived, once you have a human life here, once you have life, the church holds the sacredness of this life to be invaluable."

The position of Catholics for Choice is that abortion is a private issue of conscience. It says a woman has a right to follow her conscience within church doctrine.

"If a woman decides after really thinking and examining her conscience that having an abortion is moral and the right choice for her at that particular time, she is in Catholic teaching entitled to do it. It doesn't mean abortion is a good thing to do within the Catholic church.” O'Brien explained.

Since being installed as Pope, Benedict has consistently upheld the church's policy on abortion and contraception. Vatican watchers say his views are unlikely to change.