…Church’s decision not to offer family planning services at its health centres cited as one of the reasons Lesotho is grappling with many health-related challenges
Roman Catholic Church (RCC) healthcare facilities are under the spotlight for continuing to refuse to offer family planning services.
The RCC owns 57 clinics, four hospitals and two nursing schools countrywide which all do not offer family planning services due to the church’s doctrine which advocates natural methods of birth control.
The facilities operate under the umbrella of the Christian Health Association of Lesotho (CHAL), whose total number of health centres is 79.
However, the other 22 CHAL centres which belong to the Lesotho Evangelical Church (LEC), Anglican Church of Lesotho (ACL), Seventh Day Adventist, Church of Bible Covenant and Assemblies of God offer family planning amenities.
But with Lesotho reeling from the AIDS epidemic, the use of condoms during casual sex has been advocated as a way to reduce the spread of HIV.
Lesotho’s HIV-prevalence of 23 percent is the second highest in the world behind Swaziland’s 26 percent, and according to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), one of the reasons behind this statistic, as well as the country’s high maternal and infant mortality, and unwanted pregnancies, is difficulty to access family planning products such as condoms, and birth-control pills.
Médecins Sans Frontières Project Medical Referent, Sandra Sedlmaier-Ouattara told the Lesotho Times: “Access to family planning is a very big issue here in Lesotho because we know that pregnancy is a risk and women should only put themselves at this risk by choice.
“Around 18 percent of family planning needs are not met in Lesotho, and women who fall pregnant by mistake end up resorting to unsafe abortions.
“Illegal abortions are one of the reasons for Lesotho’s high maternal and infant mortality rate.
“Women use family planning for different reasons such as delaying pregnancies, totally avoiding falling pregnant, child-spacing and prevention of HIV and AIDS. However, the women don’t have access to family planning methods of their choice when they want them.”
Ms Sedlmaier-Ouattara said one of the reasons for lack of access to family planning products is the refusal by RCC health centres to offer services despite the desperate situation the country finds itself in.
“One of the reasons is that some hospitals supported by CHAL are not offering family planning services. I mean, we know that the RCC is not only against abortion but even family planning and is not allowing condom use and distribution even in an HIV-ravished area like Lesotho,” she said.
“The RCC continues to say condoms are not allowed while Pope Francis (the head of the church) made it clear in his speech recently when he said condoms are OK to prevent infections such as HIV.”
CHAL Acting Executive Director Baptista Paseka Ramashamole confirmed that the 57 RCC health facilities are not offering “artificial” family planning services.
“CHAL is made up of six-member churches namely Maluti Adventist Church, Church of Bible Covenant, Anglican Church of Lesotho, Lesotho Evangelical Church in Southern Africa , Assemblies of God and Roman Catholic Church.
“All these member-churches have schools of nursing, hospitals and clinics under the umbrella of CHAL.
“Save for the RCC, all other CHAL members offer artificial family planning merchandise in line with an agreement we have signed with the government of Lesotho,” he said.
Mr Ramashamole added RCC-owned health facilities do not offer artificial family planning services because of the church’s regulations which only advocate for natural family planning methods.
“The facilities only advocate for natural family planning methods, although only a trained nurse can be in a better position to explain these natural methods. For instance, the RCC teaches that children must not be allowed to have sex and should abstain, and married women can be advised to abstain from sex during their ovulation period to prevent pregnancy,” he said.
Asked if these natural family planning methods were effective in preventing the spread of HIV, Mr Ramashamole said only medical personnel could answer the question.
On his part, Christian Council of Lesotho (CCL) public relations officer, Peter Potjo, said member-churches had the freedom to exercise their rights.
“As a council, we are not above churches which are members of this council and as a result, we cannot comment on their practices,” Mr Potjo said.
“However, what we are more concerned about is the well-being of the people under the guidance of churches.”
Asked about the issue yesterday, Lesotho Catholic Bishops Conference Secretary General, Reverend Father Mookameli Chale, said he was not in a position to comment.
“’M’e Libuseng in the Health Coordinator’s Office would be best suited to respond to your questions,” Reverend Father Chale said.
The Lesotho Times could not immediately get hold of the official in question.