Conversation with a Catholic priest in Cuba
HAVANA TIMES — A number of articles on the complex issue of abortion in Cuba (where the practice is legal) were recently published in Havana Times.
I wanted to hear the opinion of a representative of the Catholic church – an institution that has traditionally opposed abortion and has been gradually reclaiming its influence in Cuba’s public sphere – and have a respectful exchange with him on the subject.
Brother Lester Rafael Zayas Diaz obtained a Theology Degree from the San Esteban de Salamanca, Spain University and completed a Philosophy major at the University of Salamanca. He is pursuing a PhD in the two disciplines and is the current rector of the Brother Bartolome de las Casas Center at the San Juan de Letran Convent in Havana.
Fray Lester: The Catholic Church is radically opposed to abortion because it maintains that human life exists from the time of conception. It is not a matter of faith, this is supported by studies. That being has the right to life. One must acknowledge the existence of a human person to be able to speak of rights.
Some say that no, even though an individual exists, that a person emerges from social relations. That argument, however, would justify killing the newborn, if that newborn weren’t recognized as a person on that basis.
For others, a person exists as of the moment in which the process of biological and organic formation is completed. According to science, however, the brain and optic nerve in humans are fully developed at age 6. You would then be justified in killing children aged 0 to 6.
Others propose that a person exists as of the moment in which radiological activity is detected in the fetus’ brain. Science, however, has described cases in which the brain presents a flat encephalogram one moment and neurological activity the next.
Others say no human life exists until the zygote is implanted in the uterus. This is the most serious position. Before this occurs, a spontaneous abortion can take place. The zygote can divide and produce two individuals, or the two fertilized zygotes can fuse into one, giving rise to a single individual. These individuals evince different genetic information. So: is there a human person before the zygote is implanted in the uterus, when we still don’t know whether it will mature into one or two fetuses or a fibroma?
A number of Catholic theologists and scientists have evaluated the possibility of condoning abortion before the implantation of the zygote in the uterus. Others reject this, arguing that, if the process continues uninterrupted, it will give birth to a human person. Do we have the right to interrupt that process?
There are other factors to consider, such as cases in which a woman is raped. Is it justified to oblige this woman to have the rapist’s child? We could eliminate the child, but it would be to continue the cycle of violence. Some women who have been raped choose to have the child; they don’t blame the person in their womb.
HT: Shouldn’t it be the mother’s choice?
Fray Lester: In my opinion, yes. Martyrdom and heroism can neither be required of nor imposed on anyone. But, what are the limits of her right to make a decision about that living being?
HT: It’s a good question. But, if not the mother, who should have this right?
Fray Lester: The question is to what extent she has such a right. But, if she doesn’t have the right, then no one does.
HT: Months ago, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa threatened to leave the presidency in the event abortion under certain circumstances was decriminalized in his country. What is your opinion about abortion in cases when the life of the mother is at risk?
Fray Lester: The Church is not opposed to therapeutic abortions. In fact, if the mother is unconscious and her life is at risk, the Church defends saving her life. The mother is a viable life form – as for the fetus, we don’t know at that point.
HT: Do you think it’s right that the Church should play such an influential role in society, as is the case in many Latin American countries, where abortion is illegal?
Fray Lester: No. I defend the secular state to such an extent that, during the pilgrimage of the Virgin festivities, I refused to take the effigy into public schools. In a secular state, the Church should be a voice among many (and enjoy the right to express its opinions). When the Church begins to impose its criteria on people (sometimes, it isn’t the Church, but the party in power that does this), the secular state is endangered.
One of Cuba’s great merits is that it was born as a secular republic.
HT: Before it was declared atheist, following the revolution of 1959.
Fray Lester: Atheism is a kind of religion and it also endangers the secular state.
One of the big problems I have as a priest in Cuba today is that the Catholic Church seems to be enjoying special recognition. I am entirely against this. I believe it must be an influential voice (in recent times, it’s played an important role in the country), but I don’t believe it should be the only voice that’s heard by the government.
HT: Some of us believe the Church could go as far as demand the prohibition of abortion in Cuba.
Fray Lester: That won’t happen with the Cuban Church. Not because we condone abortion. I am horrified by the whole issue in Cuba, how hugely irresponsible people are. I believe abortions can be avoided.
HT: But the Catholic Church is against the use of contraceptives.
Fray Lester: It is not against contraceptive measures that prevent fertilization. It is against abortive measures that prevent implantation and expel the fertilized zygote. The Church does not approve of using contraceptive methods all the time within marriage, because that’s a way of denying life. That’s where the issue of those who do not want children comes in.
HT: You decided not to have children and your decision has been respected by others. Why isn’t it a valid decision for a couple who does not want children?
Fray Lester: The Church says marriage is open to that possibility. It doesn’t say people should have them right away. The Church also defends responsible parenthood.
Until the 2nd Vatican Council, Catholic doctrine maintained that the finality of marriage was procreation alone. Nonsense. Fortunately, ever since that Council, the Church maintains that the finality is the love of the spouses and procreation.
HT: Homosexuals could get married, then.
Fray Lester: Of course, but not with the consent of the Church. It’ll take years for that to happen. The doctrine comes to us from Saint Augustine. Not all Catholics agree with it.
According to the doctrine, the one acceptable contraceptive method is the Billings method, which is natural. It consists in studying a woman’s menstrual cycles and in having intercourse only in her non-fertile days. It’s very complex in practice.
HT: And dreadful for one’s libido, I imagine.
Fray Lester: I agree. What is the answer, then? Another priest might tell you to abstain. For me, condoms are the lesser evil, for they are also useful as a means of preventing diseases. The ideal thing would be for young people to have long and serious engagements, for them not to be promiscuous. Since that isn’t the case, condoms are the lesser evil.
I don’t say this in my parish, to prevent their misuse. There’s a young couple with four children in my parish, they can’t have any more. I recommended they use condoms. The laws of the Church are not open to interpretation, but the Church also follows the teachings of Christ, which are much more than the law. The most important thing for God and the Church is the good of human beings – the wellbeing of the spouses, in this case. It would be irresponsible to tell them to have more children simply because there’s a law that forbids the use of contraceptives, particularly when one knows they will be unable to raise them properly.
The Church isn’t only what you see in the media. Those of us who don’t go on television but work, study and try to do science, also have an opinion. It takes time, like everything in the Church, but changes do happen. After a long time, the Vatican will take up the issue of divorce and homosexuality again.
Returning to the issue of abortion. I am against its use for selfish reasons: a woman who has irresponsible relations with someone and then doesn’t want to give birth to avoid stretch marks is acting carelessly.
HT: The mother isn’t the only one responsible for the child.
Fray Lester: I meant both parents, who don’t want to complicate their life, because a child will mean they can’t go out anymore, etc. I am against abortion when it is a means of legalizing disguised forms of infanticide, something which is practiced in more countries than you think and isn’t reported by the press. Babies that don’t meet certain parameters when they are born are thrown out like garbage.
I know of a doctor in a certain country that came across a baby in a bin inside a hospital. When he returned the baby, the neonatologists didn’t want to take him back, because, if he died, it would affect their child mortality statistics.
HT: Abortions are also carried out when ultrasounds reveal certain malformations or handicaps.
Fray Lester: Viability is my yardstick in such cases. A child with Down’s Syndrome has the right to life, just as much as a child that’s missing an arm. Any other view leads to a new kind of Nazi eugenics, letting only the perfect babies be born.
If the child isn’t viable, that is, if the child will be unable to live after birth, or if it will die in the uterus, an intervention is justified.
I know of a case in which the ultrasound showed that the woman’s child had cysts in her kidney. That is sufficient cause for an abortion in Cuba. She refused and had to sign paperwork, even register a formal complaint, because her family doctor would visit her at home regularly to convince her to have an abortion. Today, the child is fifteen years old and has no cysts in her kidney.
I believe the Cuban government has become aware of its mistakes a little too late. Now, they are asking the Church to help them dissuade people from using abortion as a contraceptive method.
HT: Couldn’t that be related to the aging of the population and low birth rates?
Fray Lester: Of course. In 2016, Cuba will have the oldest population in the continent. But abortions were once promoted as a contraceptive method. The way people are educated keeps them from seeing this as a bad thing.
I am against abortion because I defend life from the moment of its conception. Even though it is the woman’s body, she must be aware that another person is growing inside her.
HT: But it can’t survive without her.
Fray Lester: That’s also true after birth. An old invalid can’t survive without someone’s care. Should we kill them? A life doesn’t belong to me just because it is dependent on me.
I respect a mother’s decision, even when I believe it is wrong. I believe in a person’s right to choose. But I believe something ought to regulate abortion and set limits. If it is left in the hands of parents alone, they could use it simply to avoid complications in their life. I would be entitled to take my mother to a gas chamber when she started being a burden.
I believe we must continue to debate and study the issue of abortion. While we continue to await the truth, I defend the right to life of human beings.