On the papal plane as he returned to Rome from a recent visit to Mexico, Pope Francis told reporters that contraception might be acceptable for women in countries affected by the Zika epidemic.
Zika, the mosquito-borne virus that has spread throughout the Americas in an outbreak that started in April 2015, has been linked to microcephaly, a severe birth defect that causes children to be born with abnormally small heads that can inhibit their development. Since there's no treatment for Zika and the connection to microcephaly is still poorly understood, public health officials in several of the countries most affected by the outbreak have encouraged women to simply not get pregnant. That's particularly problematic throughout the Catholic countries in Latin America where the low-income populations most affected by Zika don't have access to birth control and abortion is illegal.
When asked if contraception or abortion would be lesser evils under these dire circumstances, Pope Francis, who is from Argentina, said that, “Avoiding pregnancy isn't an absolute evil, and in certain cases such as this one…it was clear,” as the Wall Street Journal reports. Abortion, however, is still “a crime… an absolute evil,” he said, according to Reuters.
The pope's statement doesn't necessarily mean that he'll give the go-ahead for women to use birth control; a press release published by the Vatican on Tuesday indicates concern that some countries are calling for looser restrictions on abortion, which to the church includes emergency contraceptives like Plan B and IUDs, according to the Washington Post. Leaders of the church in Latin America have also spoken out against the use of contraception and abortion, as AP reports.
But Pope Francis' statement might be enough to encourage conservative Latin American governments to consider investing in programs that help women access contraception. That access will likely still remain an issue for the foreseeable future, especially among people in the low-income communities who need it most. But the pope's comments might help tip the scales.
The pontiff's words are also heartening for those who hope that the Vatican might still condone condoms in the fight against AIDS in Africa. With Francis' track record as a relatively liberal pope, public health officials might find themselves with a new ally.
Pope Francis articulated his support of scientists working to better understand Zika and those developing treatments for it. "This needs to be worked on," he said.