Pope Francis’s hint that the Vatican could relax its ban on contraception in response to the Zika virus was hailed as a shift in Church thinking Friday – but not everyone was convinced it amounts to meaningful change.
“Pope Francis signals openness to birth control for Zika,” read a headline on the Boston Globe’s Vatican-watching website www.cruxnow.com that reflected much media coverage around the world.
“Francis says contraception can be used to slow Zika,” trumpeted the New York Times while an online headline in Britain’s The Guardian said: “Pope suggests contraception can be condoned in Zika crisis.”
Commentators however cautioned against reading too much into Francis’s off-the-cuff comments and a pro-choice lobby within the Church said they amounted to “little or no change”.
Catholics for Choice also warned that Francis’s simultaneous description of abortion as an “absolute evil” will result in women suffering from the virus dying in back-street terminations.
Jon O’Brien, president of the US-based group, said Francis’s comments were “profoundly disappointing and wrong,” for women going through “terrifying ordeals” because of Zika, a mosquito-born virus which has been linked to serious birth defects and has spread throughout Latin America.
O’Brien said: “It’s a fact that when women who are desperate to end a pregnancy don’t get access to safe and legal services, they can resort to unsafe abortions, whether by self-administering or going to an unqualified provider.
“When women find themselves in these desperate situations, they suffer and they die. Pope Francis should be well aware of that.”
O’Brien argued that Francis’s stance on reproductive rights was at odds with his concern for the world’s poor.
“So often, Francis addresses issues of poverty, but he doesn’t recognise that it is poor women who suffer and die from restrictions to their reproductive health. The rich can always circumvent any restriction.”
– Mixed signals –
While condemning abortion as akin to “what the mafia does, a crime, an absolute evil,” Francis said during his flight back from a trip to Mexico that “avoiding a pregnancy is not an absolute evil.”
And by citing the example of one of his predecessors, Pope Paul VI, who authorised nuns at risk of being raped in Africa to use contraception, he appeared to open the door to tacit Church approval for its use to combat the spread of Zika.
O’Brien said the pope’s comments were comparable to his immediate predecessor Benedict’s mixed signals on the use of condoms to prevent HIV infection in Africa.
Benedict prompted furore in 2009 when he suggested distributing condoms could make Africa’s AIDS crisis worse. But he later backtracked, accepting that they could be used to prevent infection in certain cases, notably by prostitutes.
Francis’s comments on Thursday seemed to be at odds with what some of his own officials have been saying lately.
Bishops in Latin America have responded to the Zika crisis by reasserting Church opposition to abortion and artificial contraception, urging believers to either abstain from sex if there is a risk of infection or use natural family planning to avoid a risky pregnancy.
On Wednesday, the Vatican’s ambassador to the United Nations attacked the UN human rights agency’s call for a liberalisation of abortion laws in a region where it is largely outlawed or restricted to cases where a mother’s life is in danger.
“A diagnosis of microcephaly (the defect most often linked to Zika), or the fear of such a diagnosis, should not warrant a death sentence,” said the ambassador, Archbishop Bernadito Auza.
Despite its upbeat headline, Cruxnow cautioned that Francis had not explicitly said he favoured the use of contraception for Zika, while the National Catholic Reporter recalled Francis’s tetchy reaction to being asked in November about the use of condoms to prevent HIV transmission.
Returning from a three-country African tour, Francis said that while condoms were “one of the ways” of preventing infection, sexual relations should always be open to procreation.