Dear Francis: Women at Risk for Zika Deserve Full Reproductive Health Options
Catholics for Choice highlighted the urgent health needs of women in the path of the Zika virus through an open letter to Pope Francis, which was published in the International New York Times shortly before his trip to Mexico. Using the framework of the Good Samaritan, the advertisement said, “We ask you to make it clear to your brother bishops that good Catholics can follow their conscience and use birth control to protect themselves and their partners.”
Reuters linked the ad’s message to a World Health Organization advisory that women in Zika-affected areas “should have access to safe abortion services” and protect themselves against pregnancy. Spanish-language versions ran in El Salvador and Nicaragua, only two of the countries where contraception access is limited and abortion unavailable, thanks to the Catholic hierarchy’s influence.
In fact, one of Nicaragua’s newspapers, La Prensa, refused to publish the advertisement. Lois Edith Gonzáles of Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir Nicaragua stated that her organization “is disturbed that government-sanctioned media refuses to acknowledge the tragedy that women face when denied access to abortion.”
The open letter concluded with a plea to Francis to “not play politics with the lives of women.” When the pope addressed Zika during his flight back to Rome, however, he did not promise any real changes in the institutional church’s stance on contraception or abortion. “Avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil,” Francis said, according to the New York Times, adding that this exception held true “[i]n certain cases, as in this one.”
Some speculated that this included the modern forms of contraception currently banned by the Vatican. Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, disagreed, saying, “We hope that the world’s media understands that his comments about the possibility of using contraception to prevent the spread of the Zika virus represent little or no change.” He also pointed to “Francis’ comments about abortion being ‘absolute evil’ [as] profoundly disappointing and wrong.” Ultimately, O’Brien said, Pope Francis’ informal comments revealed that “he doesn’t recognize that it’s poor women who suffer and die from restrictions to their reproductive health.”