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Pope Francis tackles ethical worries about Zika virus

26 February 2016


Cradling: a Brazilian mother poses with her daughter, who was born with microcephaly

Cradling: a Brazilian mother poses with her daughter, who was born with microcephaly

THE POPE has appeared to suggest that contraceptives could be used by Roman Catholic couples worried about the Zika virus, a suggestion that has been hailed by some as a softening of the Vatican’s attitude towards birth control.

In a press conference held on board his plane as he returned from a visit to Mexico, the Pope was asked whether contraception was the “lesser of two evils” compared with the possibility that pregnant women infected with the Zika virus would choose to undergo illegal abortions.

The Pope responded by saying that abortion was “an absolute evil” and a “crime”. “It is to kill someone in order to save another. This is what the Mafia does. On the other hand, avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil.”

Pope Francis also referred to his predecessor, Paul VI, who, he said, had permitted nuns in the Belgian Congo “to use contraceptives in cases of rape”.

The UN High Commissioner on Human Rights has called for a relaxation of strict laws on abortion in countries battling the virus, which the World Health Organization has declared a public-health emergency. The virus is active across much of central and Latin America, and the US is investigating 14 cases where the virus has possibly been sexually transmitted.

Abortion is currently illegal in Brazil, carrying a penalty of up to three years in jail, the only exceptions being rape cases, where there is a risk to the mother’s life, or for a rare foetal condition where a major part of the baby’s brain and skull is missing. Much of the rest of Latin America has highly restrictive abortion laws, and 95 per cent of the estimated 4.4 million abortions carried out each year on the continent are unsafe, research by the pro-birth-control US charity the Guttmacher Institute suggests.

The Zika virus, which is transmitted to humans through the bite of an infected Aedes aegypti mosquito, has been linked to a rise in babies born with microcephaly, a condition where babies have abnormally small heads. Microcephaly frequently — though not always — results in serious disabilities. Some 4000 babies are estimated to have been born with the condition in Brazil since last October.

The Vatican expert John L. Allen said: “To be clear, Francis did not say he was formally endorsing birth control to prevent infection. He also did not signal any shift in the Church’s negative stance on contraception as a means of preventing new life.

“But he definitely left the impression that he’s open to viewing birth control in some limited cases as a legitimate anti-infection tool, a point confirmed by a Vatican spokesman on Friday, who said it could be ‘the object of discernment in a serious case of conscience’.”

The Alliance of Baptists of Brazil has called for a debate on the abortion law. Its president, Pastor Joel Zeferino, said: “This is an urgent issue that needs to be discussed in a very democratic and open way. Above all, the debate must include women on the outskirts of our cities; black women, and poor women in particular. They are the ones who are actually having these illegal abortions. We need to empower these women with voices so they have their say.”

But Bishop Leonardo Ulrich Steiner of the RC Church in Brazil denounced the call to widen access to abortion.

In comments given to the Estado de São Paulo newspaper, he said: “Abortion leads to eugenics, the practice of selecting perfect people.

“Microcephaly has been occurring in Brazil for years. They are taking advantage of this moment to reintroduce the abortion topic,” he said.

Churches in Brazil have been asked to use their pulpits to advise churchgoers on how to avoid and eliminate the Zika virus.

The Brazilian President, Dilma Rousseff, meeting with church leaders, said that priests had the “credibility to engage the faithful in combating the insect and educating [their congregation] on how to avoid the accumulation of standing water in their communities”.

The Anglican Episcopal Church of Brazil is promoting a Lent campaign “Care for our Common Home”, which promotes the right to clean water and sanitation. The mosquito which transmits the Zika virus is able to breed where there are pools of water left standing in the environment.

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