[Austen Ivereigh in Ciudad Juárez] While abortion is always evil because it involves the deliberate destruction of human life, the use of contraceptives by women who have the Zika virus may be morally acceptable, Pope Francis told journalists on the flight back to Rome from Mexico.
Asked if either abortion or contraceptives could be considered a “lesser evil” to avoid babies being born with microcephaly — which has been linked to the mosquito-born Zika virus — Pope Francis replied:
“Abortion is not a lesser evil. It is a crime. It gets rid of one to save another. It’s what the mafia does. It is a crime. It is an absolute evil.”
“Don’t confuse avoiding pregnancy with abortion,” the Pope added.
The concept of a “lesser evil” may apply to artificial birth control, however, he added, citing Blessed Paul VI’s permission in the early 1960s for women religious in the then-Belgian Congo to take the pill when rape was being used as a weapon of war.
Unlike abortion, he said, “avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil. In certain cases, as in this one and such as the one I mentioned of Blessed Paul VI, it was clear.”
At the same time, Pope Francis pleaded with doctors and scientists “to do their utmost to find vaccines against these mosquitoes that carry this disease.”
International agencies and the governments of the countries affected by the Zika outbreak — Brazil and Colombia have reported the most cases — have in some cases urged women infected with the virus not to get pregnant for two years, in order to avoid the risk of microcephaly, which can result in an abnormal smallness of the head in newborn babies and incomplete brain development.
The link between Zika and microcephaly is deeply contested, however. Recent figures from Colombia, where there are 31,555 registered cases, show that from 3,177 women diagnosed with Zika who have given birth, only one baby has had microcephaly. Given that microcephaly was seen — rarely — in newborns prior to the Zika outbreak, the figures suggest, if anything, that there is no link. (See Danelia Cardona in CV Comment).
However, given the climate of fear generated by the outbreak, it is understandable that many women are afraid to get pregnant until there is greater clarity about the science.
In this case, Pope Francis is suggesting, it may be acceptable for contraceptives to be used for a prophylactic purpose, i.e. not to prevent life, but to prevent disease. As in the case of Paul VI and the nuns in Africa, the Church’s traditional opposition to contraception — restated in Humanae Vitae (1968) — is unaffected.
The Pope’s remarks came in a wide-ranging papal plane interview. Full transcript (by CNA) here. The full remarks on Zika are below:
Paloma García Ovejero, Cadena COPE (Spain): Holy Father, for several weeks there’s been a lot of concern in many Latin American countries but also in Europe regarding the Zika virus. The greatest risk would be for pregnant women. There is anguish. Some authorities have proposed abortion, or else to avoiding pregnancy. As regards avoiding pregnancy, on this issue, can the Church take into consideration the concept of “the lesser of two evils?”
Pope Francis: Abortion is not the lesser of two evils. It is a crime. It is to throw someone out in order to save another. That’s what the Mafia does. It is a crime, an absolute evil. On the ‘lesser evil,’ avoiding pregnancy, we are speaking in terms of the conflict between the fifth and sixth commandment. Paul VI, a great man, in a difficult situation in Africa, permitted nuns to use contraceptives in cases of rape.
Don’t confuse the evil of avoiding pregnancy by itself, with abortion. Abortion is not a theological problem, it is a human problem, it is a medical problem. You kill one person to save another, in the best case scenario. Or to live comfortably, no? It’s against the Hippocratic oaths doctors must take. It is an evil in and of itself, but it is not a religious evil in the beginning, no, it’s a human evil. Then obviously, as with every human evil, each killing is condemned.
On the other hand, avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil. In certain cases, as in this one, such as the one I mentioned of Blessed Paul VI, it was clear. I would also urge doctors to do their utmost to find vaccines against these two mosquitoes that carry this disease. This needs to be worked on.