As the mosquito-borne Zika virus continues to spread across Latin America, putting unborn children at risk for serious birth defects, Pope Francis is suggesting that women should be able to use artificial contraception to avert pregnancy.
The pope said that, in light of Zika’s potential to prevent babies’ brains from developing correctly, birth control could be seen as “the lesser of two evils.”
“Avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil,” Francis told reporters on Thursday. “I would also ask doctors to do their utmost to find vaccines against these mosquitoes that carry this disease. This needs to be worked on.”
The Catholic Church is officially opposed to artificial contraception, a position that isn’t shared by most lay Catholics around the world. Church leaders have occasionally slightly softened this stance amid public health crises. In 2010, for instance, Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged that preventing the spread of HIV and AIDS could trump the Church’s opposition to condoms.
The conservative Catholic countries in Latin America have very harsh restrictions on reproductive health services. As Zika continues to spread, several officials suggested that women could simply avoid getting pregnant. But that’s easier said than done considering those women’s struggles to access contraception and abortion. Women in Brazil, one of the countries that’s been hit hardest by Zika, have started begging for access to abortion pills.
Global health leaders agree with Pope Francis. Earlier this month, the United Nations called on Zika-affected countries to provide better access to birth control and abortion. “The advice of some governments to women to delay getting pregnant ignores the reality that many women and girls simply cannot exercise control over whether or when or under what circumstances they become pregnant, especially in an environment where sexual violence is so common,” the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said in a statement at the time.
In the same conversation aboard the papal plane on Thursday, the pope dismissed abortion as a solution to the Zika virus, calling it a “crime” and “an absolute evil.”