ADDRESS ON WOMEN'S HEALTH ISSUES
February 20, 1998
Justice demands respect for human life
On Friday, 20 February, the Holy Father met the participants in an
international conference entitled "Women's Health Issues", jointly organized by
the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, Italy, and the Center for
Medical Ethics of Georgetown University, Washington, USA. Here is a translation
of the Pope's address, which was given in Italian.
Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen,
1. I wish to express my appreciation to the Catholic University of the Sacred
Heart, represented here by the Rector, Prof. Adriano Bausola, to the Director of
the Institute of Bioethics of the same university, Bishop Elio Sgreccia, and to
the Director of the Center for Medical Ethics of Georgetown
University, for having organized this international conference on such a
timely theme for society and for the Church: women's health issues.
To reflect on this topic is in fact a duty and a debt of recognition not only
for the dignity of every woman, whose right to treatment and access to means for
improving health must be acknowledged, but also in relation to the special role
that women are called to exercise in the family and in society.
In this respect we cannot fail to remember a great number of women, children,
adolescents, wives, mothers of families, the elderly, who live in conditions of
poverty, with a total lack of health services, and who are burdened by the
difficulties involved in supporting a family in vast areas of the world, often
aggravated by disaster and war.
2. In my Message to the Secretary General of the Fourth World Conference on
Women, held in Beijing, I mentioned the "terrible exploitation of women and
girls which exists in every part of the world". And I added: "Public opinion is
only beginning to take stock of the inhuman conditions in which women and
children are often forced to work, especially in less developed areas of the
globe" (n. 7, 26 May 1995; L'Osservatore Romano English edition, 31May
1995, p. 2).
No true development without respect for life at every stage
It is essential for every society that such rights be guaranteed and that
societies which enjoy full economic development and sometimes a superfluous
level of goods turn their attention and their assistance to these people. This
cannot be done without an appropriate and corresponding recognition of the role
of women, of their dignity and of the importance of their specific contribution
to the society in which they live: "When women are able fully to share their
gifts with the whole community, the very way in which society understands and
organizes itself is improved" (Message for 1995 World Day of Peace, n. 9;
L'Osservatore Romano English edition, 14 December 1994, p. 2).
3. In particular, I consider it significant that at your international
conference you wished to examine all aspects of women's health: the prevention
and treatment of illness, respect for their integrity and their procreative
capacities, the psychological and spiritual aspects of the various situations in
which they find themselves. In fact, an idea of health is spreading that,
paradoxically, exalts and at the same time impoverishes its meaning and this
particularly applies to women.
Indeed, health has been defined as a striving for "complete physical,
psychological and social well-being and not just the absence of illness". When,
however, well-being is taken in a hedonistic sense without any reference to
moral, spiritual and religious values, this aspiration, in itself noble, can be
confined to a narrow horizon that stifles its zeal with negative consequences
for health itself. Interpreted in this reductive sense, the quest for health as
well-being has reached the point that, even in important political documents,
motherhood itself is regarded as a burden and illness, thus creating the
pretext, in the name of health and quality of life, for the justification of
contraception, sterilization, abortion and even euthanasia. This distortion must
be rectified because "there will never be justice, including equality,
development and peace, for women or for men, unless there is an unfailing
determination to respect, protect, love and serve life, every human life at
every stage and in every situation" (Message for the Fourth World Conference
on Women, n. 7; cf. Encyclical Evangelium vitae, n. 87).
4. Promoting the authentic, balanced, overall health of women means helping
them to harmonize their physical, psychological and social well-being with moral
and spiritual values. In this perspective of personal and specifically feminine
fulfillment, in which spousal and maternal self-giving is lived in the family or
in consecrated life and a sense of social solidarity is expressed, health
represents both a fundamental condition and a dimension of the person.
For this reason the concept of health must be based on a complete
anthropological vision that considers respect for life and for the dignity of
every person to be indispensable values. The quest for health cannot, therefore,
ignore the ontological value of the person and his personal dignity: even where
physical and mental health are deficient, the person still preserves his full
5. In promoting women's health, procreation has a special role from the
standpoint of the fulfillment of both the feminine personality and possible
motherhood. To promote the procreative health of women will therefore imply the
primary prevention of those illnesses that can jeopardize fertility, as well as
treatment, counseling and assistance aimed at preserving the female organism in
its integrity or at restoring its functionality; but it can never mean offending
the personal dignity of the woman or the dignity of the newly conceived life.
Church recognizes women's contribution to society
In this regard the moral commitment of the woman herself will always have
great importance: in her daily conduct she must assume and respect the values of
her own corporality, trying to assure their conformity with the demands of
health. This promotion of woman's overall health must also involve society and
this will only take place with the contribution of women themselves: "The
Church", I wrote to the Secretary General of the United Nations Fourth World
Conference on Women, "recognizes that women's contribution to the welfare and
progress of society is incalculable, and the Church looks to women to do even
more to save society from the deadly virus of degradation and violence which is
today witnessing a dramatic increase" (n. 5).
6. The whole dimension of culture and society, and in the first place health
care, must be measured against the dignity of women, in joint responsibility
with men and for the good of families and the human community itself.
I wish here to repeat the gratitude I expressed to women in the
letter I addressed specifically to them during International Women's Year:
thank you to women who are mothers, to women who are wives, to women who are
daughters, to working women and to consecrated women. Today I would also like to
thank women who practice medicine: more and more of them help to promote the
health of others, becoming guardians of life in a special capacity.
I hope that all people, society as a whole and political authorities will
make their contribution to the achievement of health for every woman and every
man, as a guarantee of a civilization that conforms to the dignity of the human
With these wishes, I impart my Blessing to all.
Teachings of the
Magisterium on Abortion