Tony Gosgnach
The Interim

Providing an obstetrical-gynecological alternative to the Planned Parenthood-United Nations Population Fund-World Health Organization school of medicine was one of the chief purposes behind a gathering of almost 100 professionals from 22 countries in Rome, Italy recently.

The Third International Workshop of Catholic Obstetricians and Gynecologists was presented by MaterCare International and the World Federation of Catholic Medical Associations Oct. 13-17. As in the previous two such workshops, participants looked at a wide range of related issues, in addition to considering how to positively address the work of well-funded and influential organizations that frequently don’t have the truly best interests of a mother and her child at heart throughout the world.

“We discussed things you can’t get from professional (medical) associations – how you could get trained in the scientific foundations and medical practice of natural family planning (and) how you could get involved in distance learning,” said Dr. Robert Walley, executive director of MaterCare International. “We also looked, with lawyers, at the question of conscience and the stem cell debate. There was a lot of discussion from the floor. The idea was that you could speak your mind.”

The issue of infertility, and how to treat it in a moral manner, was also dealt with, in addition to general obstetrical and gynecological issues, the link between abortion and breast cancer and how the life-affirming work of MaterCare could be enhanced in years to come.

“If MaterCare is going to get off the ground as a fully international organization, it’s going to need a lot more than well-meaning obstetricians and gynecologists,” said Walley. “It will need people from law and bio-ethics, as well as laypeople who can support us fundraising-wise.”

MaterCare was formed out of two key developments – Pope John Paul II’s naming of Walley to the Pontifical Council for Health (a sort of Vatican “ministry of health”) and a meeting of a group of Catholic obstetricians and gynecologists in Liverpool, England in 1995. Inspired by the Pope’s pro-life encyclical Humanae Vitae, the group went on to form a professional initiative that would focus on caring for mothers and their babies from the moment of conception, rather than on preventing that conception from taking place or killing the baby after she was conceived.

“We ask what a mother needs, instead of telling her, ‘We’re going to stop or prevent you from being a mother.’ We start with motherhood, not the prevention of motherhood,” said Walley. “Many mothers are experiencing neglect during childbirth. In Africa and in many developing countries, most mothers deliver in remote villages and rural areas without the possibility of being looked after by anyone such as a nurse, midwife, specialist or physician.”

Walley himself had been working in Nigeria since 1981 and, with colleagues in Ghana, set about trying to demonstrate that his new group could be effective.

“Most people aren’t aware of the extent of the tragedy that’s occurring in developing countries in rural situations,” he said. “Six hundred thousand mothers die every year as a result of pregnancy and childbirth. The problem is that motherhood is of no political importance … HIV/AIDS and landmines are major concerns, and rightly so … But why isn’t maternal mortality? The reason is that in Canada, no mother dies as a direct result of pregnancy and childbirth. No politician is going to get over-excited about it.”

Walley pointed out that his organization attempts to provide life and hope, rather than death and despair – in other words, what a woman really needs when she’s pregnant. “Most mothers want to be mothers,” he said. “The idea that most women in Africa and developing countries don’t want to be is something that’s being sold in the media. It’s absolutely wrong.”

MaterCare has focused on taking mission hospitals to people in villages, rather than vice-versa, and has developed rural obstetrical care services. Nursing stations have been based in villages and are connected to hospitals by radios and emergency transport systems.

In 2001, MaterCare received personal support during a private audience with the Pope, who called on the rest of the Catholic church to support its noble work. He also encouraged MaterCare to do everything it can to reflect the best of the obstetrical-gynecological profession, especially in terms of supporting healthy motherhood.

MaterCare is currently established as a charity in Canada, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Australia and the U.S. and is recognized as a non-governmental organization (NGO) by the UN. Walley said a key goal for his organization at this point is supporting and training pro-life obstetricians and gynecologists throughout the world. Already, MaterCare is looking to establish organizations for this purpose in countries such as Poland, Hungary and Croatia.

“The world situation, when it comes to life issues, is kind of a disaster,” he added. “There are no agencies speaking against (immoral) reproductive technologies or the risks women take when they undergo abortions or take birth control pills … Obstetrics and gynecology was once a noble profession, but it’s been brought to its knees. Indeed, it’s in a state of crisis worldwide, because no one wants to go into it. The basis on which you provide ob-gyn services now is abortion and birth control.”

MaterCare is looking to stage the next International Workshop of Catholic Obstetricians and Gynecologists in either Barcelona, Spain or Rome in 2006. A summary of the proceedings at the most recent workshop are posted on MaterCare’s website.