Church warns against contraception as Zika spreads

Catholic leaders in Latin America, wary of fearful climate, reiterate birth control stance

Leticia de Araujo holding her daughter, one-month-old Manuelly Araujo da Cruz, who was born with microcephaly after being exposed to the Sika virus during her mother’s pregnancy, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photograph:  Antonio Lacerda/EPA

Leticia de Araujo holding her daughter, one-month-old Manuelly Araujo da Cruz, who was born with microcephaly after being exposed to the Sika virus during her mother’s pregnancy, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photograph: Antonio Lacerda/EPA

 

As the Zika virus spreads in Latin America, Catholic leaders are warning women against using contraceptives or having abortions, even as health officials in some countries are advising women not to get pregnant because of the risk of birth defects.

The challenge posed by Zika for the Roman Catholic Church comes as Pope Francis is making his first trip to Mexico, where the virus appears to be spreading. After a period of saying little, bishops in Latin America are beginning to speak up and reassert the church’s opposition to birth control and abortion – positions that in Latin America are unpopular and often disregarded, even among Catholics.

“Contraceptives are not a solution,” said Bishop Leonardo Ulrich Steiner, the secretary general of the National Council of Bishops of Brazil, and an auxiliary bishop of Brasilia, in an interview. “There is not a single change in the church’s position.”

He urged couples to practise chastity or use “natural family planning”, a method in which women monitor their menstrual cycles and abstain from sex when they are fertile. This is not a stance likely to win many new followers. South America happens to be the continent with the highest proportion of Catholics who already disagree with the church on abortion and birth control, according to a large international poll commissioned by Univision in 2014.

Seventy-three per cent of Catholics in Latin America said that abortion should be allowed in some or all cases, and 91 per cent supported the use of contraceptives – a higher percentage even than in Europe or the United States.

While church leaders frequently say that doctrine is not determined by polls or popularity contests, they are nevertheless sensitive to counts of their flock. And the Catholic Church has been losing adherents in Latin America in recent decades as people leave to join evangelical and Pentecostal churches, or reject religion entirely.

Fall-off in Catholics

VaticanThomas Rosica

“The Vatican is very well aware of the seriousness of this issue, and the Holy Father is very aware of it,” Rosica said. “We’re waiting to see how the local churches in those countries respond.”

But Rosica said there was no leeway in church teaching on abortion or contraception. The Zika epidemic, he said, presents “an opportunity for the church to recommit itself to the dignity and sacredness of life, even in very precarious moments like this”.

The five countries in Latin America and the Caribbean that have advised women to delay pregnancy are Brazil, Ecuador, El Salvador, Colombia and Jamaica. But access to contraception is limited throughout the region, especially for poor and rural women. Abortion is restricted in many countries, and it is illegal without exceptions in the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Nicaragua, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The Zika virus is spread by mosquitoes of the Aedes genus, but researchers have found some cases transmitted by sexual contact. Experts are not yet sure whether Zika is the cause of a sudden surge in babies born in Brazil with microcephaly – unusually small heads and, often, damaged brains. Microcephaly could lead to serious disabilities – but not always.

There is no vaccine for the Zika virus, and no cure for microcephaly. The World Health Organisation this month declared the Zika epidemic an international public health emergency. The organisation advised that women should have full access to a range of contraceptive options, as well as “safe abortion services to the full extent of the law”.

Loosening of laws

Honduras

“Therapeutic means curative, and abortion doesn’t cure anything,” he said, according to a report in the newspaper La Tribuna. “It takes innocent lives away.” Cardinal Odilo Scherer of São Paulo said recently that mothers must accept babies born with microcephaly “as a mission”, and that abortion was out of the question. However, he appeared to open a door to using condoms, saying that is “personal choice” because a new life has not yet been formed.

The papal encyclical Humanae Vitae, issued by Pope Paul VI in 1968, said that artificial contraception was forbidden because sexual intercourse must always be open to procreation. “The teaching is fairly clear that contraception is not ethically permissible,” said Christopher Kaczor, a professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and a corresponding member of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life.

“That doesn’t mean a couple has to have a child,” he said, because it is possible to use natural family planning methods. He and other Catholic scholars cited a study showing that when used properly, natural family planning is as effective as birth control pills. However, the US department of health and human services reports that the failure rate for natural family planning is 25 out of 100 women, while for birth control pills it is five out of 100.

Not so clear-cut

Boston College

“My prediction is this Zika virus is going to reignite the unresolved debate that’s existed since 1968 about the moral status of artificial contraception when applied to extraordinary cases,” Bretzke said. “Now we have not just an individual extraordinary case, but a situation in which these cases are extraordinary for a large group of people,” he said. “You’ve got one competing value – to have every act open to procreation – running up against another competing value – which is to protect the public health.”

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