Source: The Huffington Post

Happy International Women’s Day! To honor this day, we have International Women’s Week, a series of blog posts about the issues, current events, laws, and ideas that affect women in the United States and worldwide. First in our series is Hadiya Hewitt’s piece on contraception and the Catholic Church.

Women in Zika-stricken countries may not have to fight the Catholic Church anymore.

Or at least they won’t fight Pope Francis, who recently suggested that contraception could be an acceptable choice for women fearing the consequences of having a child while being exposed to the Zika virus. According to Pope Francis, contraception was not an absolute evil.

However, the Pope was careful to draw the line at abortion, stating:

“Abortion is not a lesser evil. It is a crime. It is killing one person to save another. It is what the Mafia does,” Francis said, according to an AP translation. “It is a crime. It is an absolute evil.”

(tw: rape) Pope Francis’ statements on contraception are not the first time a Pope has allowed the use of contraceptives by Catholic women. In the early 1960s, Pope Paul VI gave an exception to Congolese nuns, who were in considerable danger of being raped because of the ongoing civil war. This seems somewhat counter to Catholic doctrine, where sex without creating children is wrong, because:

“When married couples deliberately act to suppress fertility, however, sexual intercourse is no longer fully marital intercourse. It is something less powerful and intimate, something more “casual.” Suppressing fertility by using contraception denies part of the inherent meaning of married sexuality and does harm to the couple’s unity. The total giving of oneself, body and soul, to one’s beloved is no time to say: “I give you everything I am—except. . . .” The Church’s teaching is not only about observing a rule, but about preserving that total, mutual gift of two persons in its integrity.”

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

However, Melissa Moschella, a philosophy professor at the Catholic University of America said that Pope Paul VI’s ruling was not considered controversial, because the act of rape meant that the women did not freely consent to the act. If she didn’t choose to have sex, then the sex was not voluntary, and was instead a violation of the woman’s body. According to Moschella, in the case of the Congolese nuns, and in other cases without consent, contraception is acceptable, because using it would be viewed as an act of self-defense.

What makes Pope Francis’ statements controversial among conservative-leaning Catholics is that unlike the use of contraceptives in the (Democratic Republic of) Congo in the 1960s, the use of contraception against the Zika virus is perceived to be the result of women voluntarily engaging in sexual relations and then seeking to avoid having children, an assumption which is probably inconsistent with the (terrible, terrible) data on sexual violence against women.

The assumption that women in Zika-stricken countries are solely engaging in casual sex, however, was not the main focus of John-Henry Weston, editor-in-chief of pro-life website LifeSiteNews. His concerns were more theological, and said that by suggesting couples could use contraceptives to prevent the side effects of conceiving a child while being exposed to Zika, the Pope opened the door for couples to potentially use “artificial” (i.e. anything that is not the rhythm method) contraception for other reasons. One of these reasons, which was previously forbidden, was the usage of contraception to prevent the birth of a child with genetic defects. Zika is linked to microcephaly, for example, which is a serious and life-altering birth defect, so could a couple use contraception to prevent the birth of a child with microcephaly?

According to Pope Francis’ remarks, they could. According to Church doctrine, however, they cannot. On the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care (ERDCH) missive, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops writes:

“Genetic counseling may be provided in order to promote responsible parenthood and to prepare for the proper treatment and care of children with genetic defects, in accordance with Catholic moral teaching and the intrinsic rights and obligations of married couples regarding the transmission of life.”

Nothing about contraceptives.

And that seems to be the point.

Maybe the Church is hoping Pope Francis’ comments on contraception will just blow over and then they can return to the status quo, but health crises like Zika are beginning to show cracks in the Church’s intractable doctrine on contraception. Though the language in the ERDCH missive is docile and sterile, the impacts are real. Many Latin American women are being forced to have children that could be born with birth defects, a result of draconian and doctrine-inspired limits on access to reproductive services.

In the end, Pope Francis’ remarks could signal a liberalization of Church doctrine on contraception. But it is unclear if the rest of the Church will follow.

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