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Pope Francis Suggests Contraceptives Could Be Okay During Zika Crisis

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Photo: Tiziana Fabi/Getty Images.
Update: Pope Francis suggested Thursday that people could use forms of artificial contraception to prevent pregnancy during the Zika virus outbreak, saying "avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil."

The comment reportedly came after the Pope was asked during a press conference whether contraceptives and abortion could be seen as a "lesser evil" in cases in which fetuses may be threatened by the virus, which many fear can cause serious birth defects.

In response to the question, Pope Francis blasted abortion as an "absolute evil" and a "crime," according to CNN, but stopped short of ruling out the use of birth control.

"It is to kill someone in order to save another. This is what the Mafia does," Francis said. "On the other hand, avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil."

He cited a past decision by the church to allow African nuns who faced the risk of rape to use contraceptives. A decision to condone the use of birth control during the Zika outbreak would be a major break from the Catholic Church's longstanding ban on contraception.

The Pope, who spoke on the plane home to the Vatican after a trip to Mexico, also urged health officials and doctors to work to create a vaccine to stop the spread of the mosquito-borne virus.

This story was originally published on February 14, 2016.
The Catholic Church is refusing to change its stance against contraception, even as health officials in Latin America issue warnings about the risks of pregnancy in the face of the Zika virus. The virus, which has spread throughout the region, is suspected be the cause of high incidences of microcephaly in infants.

The New York Times
reports
that bishops in Latin America, where nearly 70% of adults identify as Catholic, are continuing to call for bans on contraception and abortion, despite the health crisis.

"Contraceptives are not a solution," Bishop Leonardo Ulrich Steiner of the National Council of Bishops in Brazil told the Times. "There is not a single change in the Church's position."

He and other Catholic leaders instead advocate for abstinence or natural family planning, in which women monitor their menstrual cycles and avoid sex during ovulation. According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, natural family planning has a failure rate of 25 out of 100 women.

The Church's struggle to adapt their stance comes as Pope Francis makes his first visit to Mexico. The pontiff has yet to clarify his position on the matter. Late last week, the American-based Catholics for Choice group urged Pope Francis to reconsider the ban on contraception in light of Zika.

Meanwhile, women's health groups are urging Latin American governments to make family planning and abortion services more accessible, especially to those living in remote rural areas.

“Despite opposition, in recent decades, Latin America has made great strides in amplifying access to contraception," Tewodros Melesse, director general of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, told The Guardian. "However, much more needs to be done. In the face of the Zika virus, these gains need to be echoed throughout the region, especially for adolescents, poor women, and those living in rural areas who are most likely to be exposed to the virus and least likely to have access to reproductive health services.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has also called for reproductive reforms.

"Women who wish to terminate a pregnancy due to a fear of microcephaly should have access to safe abortion services to the full extent of the law," the WHO said in a statement issued last Wednesday.

Regardless of the Church's opinion, studies show that Latin Americans themselves support family planning measures. As the Times notes, a 2014 poll commissioned by Univision found that 73% of Catholics in Latin America supported a women's right to have an abortion in some or all cases and 91% supported using contraception.
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