In the News 2016

Zika Virus: Catholic Group Urges Pope to Allow Contraception

On the eve of his visit to Latin America, Pope Francis has been urged to relax the Catholic church’s stance on contraception and abortion so women living in the epicentre of the Zika virus can protect themselves from the disease.

Catholics for Choice, a liberal Catholic advocacy group based in Washington, placed an advertisement in the International New York Times calling on the Pope to “be a Good Samaritan” and condone birth control because of a link between the mosquito-borne disease and devastating brain deformities in babies.

“Women in Latin America are facing an unbelievable burden because of the Zika epidemic,” the advert said. “When you travel tomorrow to Latin America, we ask you, Francis, 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. Make it clear to the Catholic hierarchy that women’s decisions around pregnancy, including the decision to end a pregnancy, need to be respected, not condemned.”

Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the UN high commissioner for human rights, has made a similar plea, urging the repeal of “laws and policies that restrict access to sexual and reproductive health services in contravention of international standards”, including birth control and abortion.

The Pope is making a five-day visit to Mexico from February 12-17.

The Catholic church does not accept birth control or abortion, teaching that life begins at conception, and in much of Latin America rigid bans are in place despite polls showing many Catholics themselves are much more liberal.

In El Salvador, one of the most draconian anti-abortion enforcers where CFC also plans to run an advert during the Pope’s trip, women who have miscarried or are suspected of trying to abort have been jailed for up to 40 years.

“In El Salvador, women are imprisoned if they are even suspected of having an abortion, while the Catholic hierarchy continues its heartless ban on birth control,” Rosa Hernández of pro-choice Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir El Salvador (Catholic Women for the Right to Choose El Salvador) said in a statement from CFC.

While she co-signed the ad running in El Salvador’s El Diario de Hoy newspaper, the same text was rejected by La Prensa in Nicaragua, CFC said.

Pro-choice activists have seized on the escalation of the Zika virus and birth defects in babies born to infected mothers in Brazil, the country with the world’s biggest Catholic population, to call for a rethink from the Pope.

The Pope has yet to speak out on the alarming spread of the Zika, declared a global emergency by the World Health Organisation. Zika cases have been registered as far as China, and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned the virus could be spread through sex.

Mexico has seen the number of Zika cases double in a week and authorities are fumigating along the Pope’s route, which is expected to be thronged with worshippers.

“The Zika virus is highlighting an issue that was already critical. Now is the time for Francis to show the compassion he preaches and use his trip to Mexico to be a pastoral, not political, pope,” urged Jon O’Brien, CFC president.

In 2013 the Pope’s comment on homosexuality “Who am I to judge?” raised hopes among liberal Catholics that he would usher in a new era of tolerance. But he has since toed a more traditional line, saying last month that “the family God wants” was not the same as gay unions.

Zika is not the only hot topic during the Pope’s trip. Violence in the Middle East is expected to be on the agenda of a meeting between the Pope and Patriarch Kirill during a stopover in Havana, the first meeting in history between a pontiff and the head of the Russian Orthodox church.

In Mexico, organised crime and violence will loom large as he visits the southwestern state of Michoacán and the northern town of Ciudad Juárez. Representatives of the families of 43 students abducted by security forces and believed killed are expected to attend mass in Ciudad Juárez on the US border.

Poverty and the plight of migrants — nearly half the population in Mexico, the world’s second biggest Catholic country, is poor — will loom large during the visit, which also takes the pontiff to the indigenous southern state of Chiapas.

This article was first published in the Financial Times.

Catholics for Choice