The drama that ensued over Pope Francis’ remarks about wall-building, Donald Trump, and Christianity last week overshadowed another intriguing papal statement about contraception.

Catholic doctrine bans the use of artificial contraception. In remarks to the press, Pope Francis suggested that some forms of birth control may be used to prevent the spread of the Zika virus.

Pope Francis indicates that women exposed to the Zika virus may be permitted to use contraception to avoid pregnancy.

Speaking to reporters on the papal plane on Thursday, Francis says: ‘Avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil’ and in certain circumstances it may be permitted – he referred to the exceptional dispensation issued by Pope Paul VI, who allowed Catholic nuns in Africa to take birth control pills in the face of the risk of being raped.”

The Holy Father was spwereferring to nuns in the Belgian Congo during the 1960s, who used contraception that prevents ovulation to avoid the possibility of becoming pregnant by rape, a threat during the country’s political upheaval. A Catholic ethics expert expanded upon the papal comments:

“There was a legitimation of contraception at the time, and I think he’s saying that a similar situation now exists in countries where the Zika virus is prevalent,” said the Rev. James Keenan, an expert on Catholic sexual ethics and morality.

Keenan said the Pope’s comments, although made in an off-the-cuff interview and not an official papal document, could have broad implications for health care providers, not only in Latin America but also the United States and elsewhere.

“This is not just about individuals. This is about the thousands of Catholic hospitals that can help women in this situation” by providing contraception.

Keenan compared the Pope’s comments to remarks made by his predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in 2010. In a book-length interview, Benedict said that in some cases, using condoms to prevent the spread of disease could be the “first step” toward moral responsibility.

Francis’ comments on Thursday take that argument several steps farther, Keenan said.

Concerns over Zika are now expanding into health problems beyond the birth defect called microencephaly, which leads to small heads and reduced mental function. A city in Colombia called Turbo is reporting a significant uptick in a disease that produces paralysis, called Guillain-Barre syndrome.

Before Zika’s arrival in Turbo, a mostly Afro-Colombian town of 60,000 set amid vast banana plantations on the country’s north coast, doctors typically saw one case of Guillain-Barre a year, if that.

In the past six weeks, there have been five, all of them severe. Three patients have died. One is fighting for his life in an intensive care unit. The fifth, a 10-year-old girl, hasn’t been able to move her legs in a week.

Much of South America is struggling with the spread of Zika. Venezuela has just collapsed economically, yet is now forced to contend with 5000 reported cases.

…But a network of independent physicians allied with the opposition — the Venezuelan Society of Public Health — says that’s likely a dramatic underestimate. It says a polling of local health officials found a rise in acute fevers that could correspond to 400,000 Zika cases, and the outbreak will likely reach its peak around the end of March.

Neighboring Colombia, by contrast, has reported more than 30,000 cases.

It’s been a year since the government published up-to-date epidemiological data and reaching the Health Ministry for information is frustrating. The main line for hits “Zika situation room” was out of order Tuesday and the person answering another number for the room hung up twice on a reporter.

To compensate for the lack of official figures, doctors have been turning to informal surveys, social media and even Google analytics to try to get a handle on the scope of the outbreak.

Many Catholics who live in areas experiencing Zika outbreaks will likely embrace the papal suggestion. Interestingly, it seems much less controversial than his statement about walls and Christianity.


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