Despite Zika Outbreak, Catholic Leaders Say Contraceptives ‘Not a Solution’
When Colombia, El Salvador, and Brazil recently warned women not to get pregnant because of the Zika virus, some human rights advocates hoped the outbreak would propel the Latin American nations to reconsider their strict antiabortion laws. But as the virus continues to infect thousands of pregnant women throughout the region, putting them at risk of giving birth to babies born with brain damage, the Roman Catholic Church is doubling down on its conservative stance against both contraceptives and abortion.
“Contraceptives are not a solution,” Bishop Leonardo Ulrich Steiner of Brazil said in an interview with The New York Times in which he confirmed that the Zika outbreak would not cause the church to change its long-held position on the use of birth control. He joins Cardinal Odilo Scherer of São Paulo and Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras in publicly condemning the use of contraceptives in response to the Zika outbreak, which has been linked to microcephaly, a birth defect in which babies are born with abnormally small heads.
Instead, church officials have advocated for couples to either abstain from sex or practice “natural family planning,” a method in which a woman tracks her menstrual cycle to determine when she is most or least fertile and plans sexual intercourse accordingly.
While the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops asserts that this method for family planning is rooted in science, numerous studies have demonstrated that it is not nearly as effective at preventing pregnancy as most contraceptives. Twenty-four percent of all women using fertility-awareness-based methods will experience an unintended pregnancy, compared with just 9 percent of women using pills or patches, 6 percent using injectables, and less than 1 percent using an implant or IUD, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Contraceptive use in Latin America and the Caribbean has soared to 72 percent—exceeding the global average of 63 percent, according to International Planned Parenthood Federation—but many women’s advocates worry that reproductive health care throughout the region is largely out of reach for poor people, the young, and those living in rural areas, because of a lack of education, awareness, or money, or because they live far from family planning centers. At the same time, 56 percent of all pregnancies in Latin America and the Caribbean are unintended, marking the highest proportion of unintended pregnancies worldwide, according to a 2014 study by the reproductive health nonprofit Guttmacher Institute.
But that hasn’t stopped five Latin American and Caribbean nations from warning women not to get pregnant in response to the threat of the Zika virus, which is transmitted by mosquitoes. In El Salvador—where women can face manslaughter charges and jail time for terminating pregnancies—women have been asked not to get pregnant until 2018.
In Brazil and Colombia, abortion is illegal except for instances of rape or incest or to save a woman’s life. Women in those countries have been advised to delay pregnancy for at least six months. Colombia’s national health institute on Saturday reported more than 31,000 cases of Zika, 5,000 of them among pregnant women. Jamaica, which has also advised women to delay pregnancy, responded to the outbreak by issuing a reggae-inspired public service announcement with rhyming lines such as “A special shout out to pregnant ladies/Protect yourselves and your babies.”
While it remains to be seen whether Pope Francis will address the issue of the Zika virus during his trip to Mexico this week, a spokesperson for the Vatican suggested to the Times that the virus is unlikely to sway his stance on reproductive rights, which is rooted in centuries of church doctrine. The Zika virus, said Fr. Thomas Rosica, offers an “opportunity for the church to recommit itself to the dignity and sacredness of life, even in very precarious moments like this.”