Zika Crisis Pressures Vatican to Soften Stance on Contraception

Zika Crisis Pressures Vatican to Soften Stance on ContraceptionZika Crisis Pressures Vatican to Soften Stance on Contraception

The Zika crisis is putting pressure on church doctrine that bans all forms of contraception, and has even stoked a debate over abortion in many conservative Latin American nations.

Brazilian officials and international public health experts have urged women to put off pregnancy until the Zika epidemic is under control.

On the frontline of Brazil’s fight against Zika, volunteers go into the poorest areas showing residents how to protect themselves against mosquitoes that carry the virus linked to birth defects. But there are no lessons offered on methods to avoid getting pregnant, reports Reuters.

On Thursday, Pope Francis appeared to suggest the church could soften its ban on contraception for women as they face the Zika crisis.

“Avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil” Francis told reporters on the papal plane as it returned to Rome following his tour of Mexico.

He said there is a precedent of exceptional dispensations allowing women to use contraception.

The pope did not elaborate further and did not indicate if the faithful who want to avoid pregnancies amid a Zika epidemic would have the church’s explicit blessing to do so or if priests at the local level would just look the other way, at least until the Zika situation becomes clearer.

Francis did make clear there would be no change to the church’s position on abortion. “It is a crime. It is an absolute evil.”

Much remains unknown about Zika, including whether it actually causes microcephaly, a condition marked by abnormally small head size that often results in neurological and developmental problems. Brazil is investigating the potential link between Zika and nearly 4,500 suspected cases of microcephaly.

Researchers have identified evidence of Zika infection in most of 508 confirmed microcephaly cases, either in the baby or in the mother, Brazil’s health ministry said Wednesday, but have not confirmed that Zika was the cause.

  “Go After the Mosquitoes”

Ahead of Francis’ visit to Mexico, a senior Vatican official said he did not expect any change to the church’s position on birth control and Catholic scholars also said it was unlikely.

“I find it quite amazing that there has been so much attention given to contraception, birth control and abortion legislation regarding Zika, when I think much more attention should be given to the source of the Zika problem, which are mosquitoes,” said Father Robert Gahl, professor of ethics at the Pontifical Holy Cross University in Rome.

In Colombia, facing a Zika crisis nearly as acute as Brazil’s, Danelia Cardona, a psychologist who is the director of the nation’s Episcopal Conference’s Department for the Promotion and Defense of Life, said questioning the church’s position on contraception was not useful as women already make their own decisions on the matter.

She added that contraception “will not solve the Zika crisis” - only the eradication of the virus-carrying mosquitoes would.

Fernando Altemeyer, a theology professor at the Catholic University of Sao Paulo and a former priest, said Zika is unquestionably sparking debate about contraception within the church.

“Zika has put humanity in crisis and if it worsens it will force the church to make a decision on saving human life,” he said.

“Zika is putting at risk the most innocent - unborn children - so it would be entirely adequate that the church shift its position on contraceptives for this case.”