By Hannah Schultz, International Correspondent
During a press conference on the papal jet, the Pope was asked whether the church should consider contraception the “lesser of two evils” compared with the possibility of women aborting fetuses infected with Zika. His answer flooded the press with news of his liberalization of the “Humanae Vitae,” the papal document that solidified the church’s stance against almost every form of birth control since 1968, with few exceptions.
Abortion, he insisted, was a “crime.” “It is to kill someone in order to save another,” Pope Francis said. “This is what the Mafia does. On the other hand, avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil.”
His remark is not completely unprecedented in the Catholic Church. In the early 1960s, Pope Paul VI allowed nuns in the Congo to use birth control in order to protect them from conceiving children through rape, which was a major concern during the political unrest at the time, according to an article in the BBC. Additionally, in an interview in 2010, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said that in some cases using condoms to prevent the spread of disease could be the “first step” toward moral responsibility.
However, Francis’ off-the-cuff comment, which does not hold credence as an official papal decree, may have caused some to overestimate his liberal policies. His stance on the intrinsic evil of birth control is still as clear as ever.
“We must not confuse the evil consisting of avoiding a pregnancy with abortion,” he said, reminding his interviewers that while abortion is an absolute evil, contraception is still evil—only to a lesser degree. This leaves a gap in morality and viability for women in Zika-infested countries who wish to protect themselves and their future children through contraception: Will it change the availability of birth control or the justification of its use if their actions are still considered evil by the Catholic Church?
Furthermore, studies have shown that this announcement may have little to no bearing on the actions of Latin American women due to the widely accepted use of contraception already. CNN reported that according to a survey by the Spanish-language television network Univision, 88 percent of Mexicans, 91 percent of Colombians and 93 percent of Brazilians support the use of contraceptives.
In his article for the Guardian, Emer O’Toole argues that “the obstacles preventing Latin American women from accessing contraception are neither legal nor religious, but linked to poverty and poor access to medical care.”
“In short, a papal decree that artificial contraception is permissible in the case of the Zika epidemic would be utterly meaningless in material terms for women in Latin America,” O’Toole writes. “It would not influence lawmakers or public opinion in any helpful way, nor secure poor women access to reproductive healthcare.”