Pope Francis has weighed in on birth control amidst the Zika virus outbreak in Latin America, suggesting that women could use contraception to prevent a pregnancy. However, the pope stopped short of condoning abortion.
“Avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil,” Francis said, according to multiple reports. “In certain cases, as in this one... it was clear. I would also urge doctors to do their utmost to find vaccines against these mosquitoes that carry this disease.”
Francis ruled out abortion, however, calling it “a crime, an absolute evil.”
The Catholic church generally opposes contraception. Francis referenced an exception Pope Paul VI made in the 1960s allowing nuns in the Belgian Congo to take birth control pills because they were in danger of being raped. And in 2010, Francis' predecessor, Pope Benedict, made waves when he suggested that using condoms might be morally justifiable as a way to prevent the spread of HIV.
While mosquitoes are the main mode of transmission for the disease, the Zika virus can remain in semen for an indeterminate amount of time. A handful of case studies in the U.S. suggest that the disease can be transmitted sexually.
Because of this, authorities from the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that pregnant couples who may have been exposed to Zika use condoms consistently and correctly to make sure the virus is not passed along to the expectant mother.
Several countries affected by the epidemic have advised women to delay pregnancy, which may present some difficulty in heavily Catholic areas.
Thirty countries and territories have ongoing Zika virus transmission right now. Brazil is home to the largest Zika virus epidemic by far. An estimated 498,000 to 1.5 million Brazilians may have contracted the disease, which is symptomless for most people who get it.
Brazil's Zika epidemic, which may have begun as early as 2014, appears to coincide with a spike of microcephaly, in which babies are born with smaller heads than normal. The country's ministry of health reported 4,443 suspected or confirmed cases of microcephaly in Brazil in its last update.
Because of Zika's suspected link to microcephaly, as well as a neurological disorder called Guillain-Barre syndrome, the World Health Organization declared the clusters of birth defects potentially linked to the virus a "public health emergency of international concern" on Feb. 1.
This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.