As thousands of Central American children desperately cross our southern border, seeking security and opportunity unavailable to them in their home countries, there is a rush to deal with this humanitarian crisis. While experts strive to stem this immigration surge, one fundamental cause shouldn't be ignored: the Vatican's refusal to respect the rights of all women to make their own childbearing decisions.
Many of these children have made the long, dangerous trek from Guatemala, which has the most rapid population growth of any Latin American nation. There, the least educated women have more than five children each; the average woman has nearly four. Mexico, its neighbor to the north, however, has made extraordinary progress in expanding access to voluntary family planning. Family size there has plummeted from 6.8 children per woman in 1970 to just 2.2 children today. This helps explain why the current crisis involves a sudden influx of children from Central America and not from Mexico, where small families have played a major role in changing society for the better.
What makes Guatemala so different from Mexico? A big part of the discrepancy is the role of the Catholic Church. Both Mexico and Guatemala are largely Catholic and share much in the way of a common heritage. But Mexico has a long, proud tradition of separation of church and state, and birth control is universally available. Not so in Guatemala, where the church is a powerful and harmful political force. Catholic bishops in Guatemala have long suppressed efforts to allow women and couples the means to make their own reproductive choices. They deserve a full measure of blame for the large numbers of unplanned births and soaring population growth. Ultimately, they bear a great deal of responsibility for the poverty and misery that has spawned so much strife, which now includes the emergence of powerful gangs. Many of the children traveling north are fleeing from those gangs, and for their lives.
The immediate need to address the dangerous conditions that motivate children to seek a safer environment is both benevolent and practical. While ensuring that the children receive decent care when they arrive here, the United States government must also send a powerful message to people in Central America. It's both dangerous and completely unacceptable for anyone, let alone unaccompanied children, to travel to cross our border illegally. The Obama Administration has done a commendable job when it comes to aid for international family planning. (More could be done were it not for opposition in the GOP-controlled U.S. House.) But as long as the Catholic hierarchy turns a deaf ear to a root cause of so much suffering, the crisis will continue, whether it's in the poorest, most remote reaches of Guatemala or on the U.S. border.
Unlike his predecessor, Pope Francis at least seems open to change on some fronts. But women and couples in Guatemala don't have the luxury of time. Neither should the Pope. While the U.S. government does what it can to protect these children and end this immigration crisis, Pope Francis needs to step up. He can undo the damage inflicted by Pope Paul VI back in 1968 by rescinding Humanae Vitae, the papal encyclical against modern contraception. It's 2014, and the overwhelming majority of Catholics around the world support the use of contraception.
Respect for religious traditions should not stand in the way of women's ability to control their own fertility and their futures. Guatemalan women, like their counterparts everywhere, want what's best for their families, which includes having the number of children they can adequately support and nurture. Access to modern contraception is an important tool for achieving that.
While efforts are under way to address the current border crisis, it's past time for Catholic bishops to contemplate the role they've played in creating it and to make long-overdue changes to help Catholic women and families.
John Seager is president of Population Connection, www.populationconnection.org, America's voice for population stabilization.