An outbreak of the Zika virus has turned the world's eyes to Latin America and ignited controversies over abortion, contraception, and the moral authority of the Catholic Church.
The Zika virus is spread through the bites of infected mosquitoes belonging to the Aedes genus. Zika virus produces symptoms such as rash, joint pain, fever, and conjunctivitis, according to the CDC. Currently, several South American, Central American, and Caribbean countries are sites of active Zika virus transmission, the CDC reports. Zika has two known strains -- one that originated in Africa and another that originated in Asia -- with the Asian strain responsible for the outbreak in Brazil.
Zika triggers fear because of possible link between Zika and Guillain-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system attacks the body's nerves, resulting in nerve damage, muscle weakness, and paralysis. Zika also arouses fear because of the probable link between Zika infection in pregnant women and the subsequent birth of babies with microcephaly, a birth defect in which a baby's head and brain are abnormally small. (More here.) Microcephaly is associated with intellectual disabilities, developmental delays, hearing and vision problems, and seizures. According to the World Health Organization, six countries and territories have reported an increase in the incidence of microcephaly and/or Guillain-Barré syndrome following Zika outbreaks.
Global health authorities are taking the Zika threat seriously. The International Planned Parenthood Federation has stressed the importance of contraception and abortion in addressing Zika's effects. The World Health Organization recommends that medical professionals provide contraception and contraceptive counseling to people in Zika-affected regions, so as to prevent unintended pregnancies and sexual transmission of the virus. An emergency committee convened by the Director-General of the World Health Organization is urging medical professionals to standardize and enhance surveillance for microcephaly and Guillain-Barré syndrome in Zika-affected areas.
The Zika outbreak has brought urgency to the struggle for reproductive rights in Latin America. Caring for microcephalic children can exacerbate the challenges faced by women and families in poverty, and understandably, many women want to avoid giving birth to microcephalic babies.
Unfortunately, contraception access in poor and rural areas of Latin America is often unsatisfactory. Furthermore, laws in most Latin American countries restrict or forbid abortion, placing pregnant women with Zika in a frightening position.
Terrified of giving birth to babies with microcephaly, Latin American women are seeking abortions through underground channels. The Washington Post reports that Women on Web (a Canada-based organization that provides abortion medication to women in countries where abortion is banned) is receiving 40-50 requests a day from women in Latin America.
Officials in Brazil, El Salvador, Ecuador, and Colombia have warned women not to get pregnant during the Zika outbreak. However, demanding that women avoid pregnancy in countries with large unmet contraceptive needs and strict anti-abortion laws is absurd. For example, Morena Herrera, president of Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto (Citizen's Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion) in El Salvador, pointed out the absurdity of such calls. Herrera reminded BBC News that many women in El Salvador lack information about contraceptives.
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Contraception and abortion are vital tools for preventing human suffering in Zika's wake. Furthermore, condoms can prevent Zika transmission through sexual contact, yet another reason to encourage contraception. Sadly, many Catholic leaders refuses to acknowledge this.
During an in-flight press conference en route to Rome on February 17th, Pope Francis discussed abortion and contraception in the midst of the Zika crisis. (Hat tip to New York Times.) Pope Francis called abortion "an absolute evil", emphasizing that, "Abortion is not a lesser evil. It is a crime." ("L’aborto non è un 'male minore'. E’ un crimine.") However, he added that avoiding pregnancy in that context is not an absolute evil.
Mind you, he did not say that contraception is now morally permissible, just that it is not an absolute evil.
Pope Francis' lukewarm words are a slight improvement over the Catholic Church's traditional stance, but he still forbids abortion and still stops short of fully condoning contraception. Also, Pope Francis has not changed church doctrine on contraception, so the church's official ban still stands.
Bishop Noel Antonio Londono of the Diocese of Jerico, Colombia, argued that the Pope's remarks are not a "blank check" to use contraception. In the context of the Zika crisis, "there are people who need to protect themselves," he said, according to the Associated Press.
Other Catholic leaders in Zika-affected countries continue to forbid abortion and contraception, even as the threat of microcephaly looms. Pedro Mercado, deputy secretary of la Conferencia Episcopal de Colombia (the Episcopal Conference of Colombia), stressed in a February 9th statement that "the priority should be to eliminate mosquitoes that transmit the disease and not the lives of innocent children."("La prioridad debe ser acabar con los mosquitos transmisores de la enfermedad y no con la vida de niños inocentes".)
In Brazil, where over 4,000 infants have been born with microcephaly since the start of the Zika outbreak in early 2015, Catholic leaders remains inflexible. The Conferência Nacional dos Bispos do Brasil (the National Conference of Bishops in Brazil) has released several statements condemning abortion and contraception. CNBB statements stress the importance of sanitation in tackling Zika, not not reproductive freedoms. For example, in a February 4th statement, CNBB officials encouraged anti-Zika initiatives such as improved sanitation, but forbid abortion.
"Merece atenção especial o vírus zika por sua provável ligação com a microcefalia, embora isso não tenha sido provado cientificamente. A gravidade da situação levou a Organização Mundial da Saúde a declarar a microcefalia e o vírus zika emergência internacional. O estado de alerta, contudo, não deve nos levar ao pânico, como se estivéssemos diante de uma situação invencível, apesar de sua extrema gravidade. Tampouco justifica defender o aborto para os casos de microcefalia como, lamentavelmente, propõem determinados grupos que se organizam para levar a questão ao Supremo Tribunal Federal num total desrespeito ao dom da vida."A February 12th statement by Cardinal Odilo P. Scherer, Archbishop of São Paulo, condemns abortion as well. Arrogantly, he claimed to understand the distress of women who worry that they may give birth to microcephalic babies.
"The Zika virus deserved special attention because of its probable link with microcephaly, although this has not been proven scientifically. The gravity of the situation led the World Health Organization to declare microcephaly and Zika virus an international emergency. The alert, however, should not lead us to panic, as if we are facing an invincible situation, despite its extreme gravity. Nor does it justify advocating abortion for cases of microcephaly, as certain groups have regrettably proposed, organizing to take the matter to the Supreme Court [and showing] a total disrespect for the gift of life."
"Como era de se esperar, o aumento dos casos de microcefalia nesses tempos de zika reanimou os defensores da "descriminalização" do aborto: querem aproveitar a psicose geral para conseguir a aprovação do Congresso Nacional, ou pelo casuísmo no Supremo Tribunal Federal, as possibilidades de mais um caso de "aborto legal"...In a February 10th statement, Guarabira Bishop Francisco de Assis Dantas de Lucen warned against abortion and "contraceptive mentality" during the Zika crisis.
Compreendo a aflição das mulheres, que se vêm na situação de gerar um filho com microcefalia. Elas precisam ser amparadas e preparadas para terem seu filho e cuidar dele adequadamente. E a mulher tem uma grande capacidade de acolher e amar o que é pequeno, frágil e necessitado de proteção e amparo. Que outra coisa poderia ser feita, sem deixar de ser uma decisão nobre e digna da condição humana?"
"As might be expected, the increase in microcephaly cases during these Zika times revives advocates of "decriminalization" of abortion. They want to take advantage of the general psychosis to get the approval of Congress, or use casuistry in the Supreme Court [to open] possibilities for more cases of "legal abortion"...
I understand the distress of women who find themselves in the situation of conceiving a child with microcephaly. They need to be supported and prepared to have a child and care for him properly. The woman has a great ability to accept and love what is small, fragile and in need of protection and support. What else could be done, without ceasing to be a noble and dignified decision [with regard to] the human condition?"
"Envia-nos na defesa do direito à vida como expressa a própria Constituição Federal e não usar o Zika vírus por sua possível ligação com a microcefalia para alargar a agenda do aborto e mentalidade contraceptiva..."Even in dire circumstances, many Catholic leaders still forbid practices can prevent a great deal of human suffering. Sanitation practices meant to reduce mosquito numbers are important, but by themselves they are not enough. Measures must be taken to prevent unwanted births and sexual transmission of the virus.
"Send us in defending the right to life as expressed in the Federal Constitution, and not using the Zika virus and its possible link with microcephaly to broaden the agenda of abortion and contraceptive mentality..."
Fortunately, some Latin American women have disregarded the Catholic Church's teachings on family planning. Substantial percentages of Latin American women use modern contraception methods, according to the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs. As mentioned above, many Latin American women are seeking abortions underground. Ordinary people understand the importance of preventing unwanted pregnancies, even if Catholic leaders remain oblivious.
However, for women in poor or rural areas, contraception access can be limited. For women throughout Latin America, abortion remains illegal. Instead of recognizing these problems, Catholic leaders clings to harmful doctrines that ignore realities on the ground.
* Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese translations were derived from Google Translate, with small modifications for the sake of clarity.