Zika Requires a New Response from Pope Francis: Put Women's Lives and Health First, by Natalia Garzon

Directives such as don’t have sex and avoid getting pregnant are what the governments of Brazil and El Salvador, among other countries in Latin and Central America, are telling women in order to curb the Zika virus. Pronouncements like these create mayhem and do nothing to help stop the spread of the virus. Additionally these government recommendations put the responsibility solely on women, which is discriminatory, unfair and an unrealistic solution to an ever growing public health crisis.

International outcry over the Zika virus to date has compelled both the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control to make public announcements on how they plan to address the outbreak. And yesterday the Obama Administration announced it will ask Congress for more than $1.8 billion in emergency funding to enhance ongoing efforts to prepare for and respond to the virus in the United States and abroad.

Beyond decrees from public health authorities and the United States, the people of Latin America and the Caribbean are waiting to hear the Vatican’s response to this international health emergency. More than 425 million Catholics live in Latin America – nearly 40% of the world’s total Catholic population. And Pope Francis is the first pope in history from the region.

Being raised Catholic and a daughter of Colombians, I’m particularly interested to see whether Pope Francis will empathize with Latina women at risk of Zika and make a public statement in support of women accessing reproductive health services. Will he be bold and promote the use of modern contraceptives? Will he be compassionate and allow the termination of pregnancies in cases of rape, incest and when the health and life of the woman is at risk?

While the Pope has been more progressive than his predecessor, showing compassion towards the LGBT community, in contrast the Vatican has repeatedly levied its power and influence to control women’s reproductive lives around the world.

In 2009, for example, a nine-year-old Brazilian girl who had been repeatedly raped by her stepfather became pregnant with twins. She was legally entitled to end the pregnancy, yet Brazilian Archbishop Jose Cardoso Sobrinho demanded a judge stop doctors from performing the procedure.

After the abortion was performed over his objections, Archbishop Sobrinho, with support from Vatican officials, publicly excommunicated the girl’s mother and the doctors who cared for her. As for the perpetrator—the stepfather who sexually abused her for years—the church could not even bother to issue a mere denunciation. According to Archbishop Sobrinho, “the abortion, the elimination of an innocent life, was more serious.”

These efforts to villainize women and girls in desperate need of reproductive health services are far from isolated. In 2013, Vatican officials actively intervened in the case of Beatríz, a pregnant Salvadoran woman who was repeatedly denied an abortion, even though she had an aggravated case of lupus and was experiencing kidney failure, and the fetus she carried was nonviable. Only after being denied care for several weeks was Beatríz granted an emergency caesarian—a legal loophole that saved her life.

These two examples show how the Vatican refuses to allow any woman to end a pregnancy that puts her health and life at risk—even rape survivors. It shows how personhood, specifically a fetus, has a higher value in the eyes of the Catholic Church than a pregnant woman.

The more I hear stories of women and girls denied reproductive health services in the name of Catholicism, the more conflicted in my faith I become. However I am fortunate to have the knowledge and means to prevent a pregnancy. But women who are poor and live in rural areas of Brazil, El Salvador and other Latin American countries fighting off the Zika virus won’t be as lucky.

With an international health crisis looming that will affect the reproductive health and lives of countless women, now is the time for Pope Francis to make a statement in support of women putting their health and lives first.

There was a hint of progress during the Papal visit to the United States last year when Pope Francis announced priests will temporarily be able to forgive abortion without special permission from a bishop. However an abortion for a rape survivor or to save the health and life of a woman is not a sin.

The Vatican should not interfere in the reproductive health choices of women and girls. And Catholics in Latin American and beyond are looking to Pope Francis for words of compassion and his prayers to protect the health and lives of those affected by Zika—allowing women the reproductive health services they need to prevent or continue with a pregnancy.


Picture Credit: By Alfredo Borba (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons