Pope Francis suggested Thursday that contraceptives may be morally acceptable to avoid spreading the Zika virus, framing their use as “not an absolute evil” compared with abortion and setting off a debate about whether the pontiff’s remarks were unprecedented.
Francis was on a plane back to Rome after a six-day trip to Mexico when a reporter asked him whether he thought abortion or avoiding pregnancy could be “the lesser of two evils” in responding to the mosquito-borne Zika virus, which has hit Latin American countries hard.
“Abortion is not the lesser of two evils. It is a crime. That’s what the Mafia does,” the pope said, according to a transcript from the Catholic News Agency.
Francis cited the decision made by Pope Paul VI in the 1960s to permit nuns in Belgian Congo to use artificial contraception to prevent pregnancies because they were being systematically raped. “On the other hand, avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil,’’ he said. “In certain cases, as in this one [Zika], such as the one I mentioned of Blessed Paul VI, it was clear.”
It was not immediately clear what effect the pope’s remarks would have in heavily Catholic Latin America, where cases of Zika are multiplying. Researchers increasingly believe the virus is linked to thousands of cases of microcephaly — a condition in which babies are born with small heads and brain abnormalities — in Brazil. There also is evidence that the virus is spread through sexual transmission in some cases.
When recently asked about Catholic teaching and Zika, some prominent Catholic leaders in the region have emphasized that artificial contraception is immoral. But the issue of whether it might be acceptable in the case of Zika is “a question that’s still under debate,” said Monsignor Gregorio Rosa Chávez, auxiliary bishop of San Salvador.
Some church leaders might be waiting to make statements about the virus because the scientific link between Zika and microcephaly in infants has not been scientifically proved, said Richard Coll, foreign policy adviser for Latin America and global trade at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who was in El Paso-Juarez at the U.S.-Mexico border for the pope’s Mass on Wednesday. Health officials warn that it may take months to know more definitively. (Courtesy Washington Post)