Catholics for Choice: The Zika Virus and the Catholic Hierarchy

Summer is just around the corner. For many, the warmer weather will bring fun like grilling, hot dogs, baseball, outdoor jaunts and lighter clothing, but for many others it will bring the increased danger of mosquitoes and mosquito-borne illnesses like the Zika virus. This year the Zika virus is a particularly disastrous threat for women.

The Zika epidemic has now spread to more than 40 countries primarily in the region of Latin America and the Caribbean. The World Health Organization has declared it a “public health emergency of international concern.” WHO predicts up to 4 million cases of the mosquito-borne illness this year. While it has not yet been proven, Zika is thought to cause a birth defect known as microcephaly, which causes babies to be born with abnormally small heads. Brazil alone has seen a surge of 4,000 reported cases of the devastating disability, which can cause severe cognitive and developmental impairment.

Sadly, the Catholic hierarchy is once again playing a harmful, obstructionist role and women and their children will bear the brunt of their regressive stance. Rather than truly being a force of mercy and justice like Pope Francis has called for in this special year of mercy, the hierarchy remains entrenched in blindness to the reality of women’s lives.

The hierarchy’s unconscionable prohibition on contraception leaves far too many Catholic women struggling to prevent unintended pregnancies and, to make matters worse, when a woman does become pregnant if the Catholic hierarchy had its way each woman would carry her pregnancy to term regardless of the effect that might have on her health, well-being, happiness, conscience, family situation or any other life factor.

Fortunately, Catholics long ago decided how to care compassionately for themselves and others and obey their own consciences on important matters like reproductive health. Catholics for Choice lifted up this perspective with an ad in the International Times just before the Pope’s visit to Mexico urging the Pope to reconsider the ban on contraception and we will continue to do so because our faith call us to do so. Despite the longstanding ban, much has been made of the Pope’s comments about “avoiding pregnancy” not being an “absolute evil” on his way back from Mexico. Speculation swirled about softening of the Vatican’s position on contraception but it was much ado about nothing. While Catholics have overwhelmingly continued to ignore this dictate, the opportunity was missed as there was no policy change on contraception.

To add insult to injury, Francis’ comments about abortion being an “absolute evil,” made during the same interview returning from Mexico, are profoundly disappointing and wrong. For the Global South, the pope’s remarks and continuation of these restrictive policies are devastating and could be deadly. It’s a fact that when women who are desperate to end a pregnancy don’t get access to safe and legal services, they can resort to unsafe abortions. When women find themselves in these desperate situations, they suffer and in many instances they die.

Many of the affected countries in the region have restrictive or highly restrictive abortion laws, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Many of these laws are a direct result of lobbying by the Catholic hierarchy in those countries. For example the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Nicaragua provide no legal access to abortion under any circumstances, and an additional six countries in the region only allow abortion to save a woman’s life. In Brazil, the country most affected by the outbreak, abortion is legal only in cases of rape, when a woman’s life is endangered, and in cases of a severe fetal brain malformation known as anencephaly. As a result, there are an estimated 850,000 illegal abortions in the country each year, and some 200,000 women seek treatment for botched abortions. Again, it is poor women who suffer the most at the hands of unscrupulous illegal abortion providers.

The interference of the Catholic hierarchy to perpetuate these dangerous laws and onerous policies is more than just hazardous to women’s health in these regions. It is also a violation of the religious freedom of those in need. Religious liberty rests on principles of fairness. It rests on the idea that one is free to believe as they see fit and to express that belief so long as it does not harm another individual or one does not seek to impose those beliefs upon another individual. Daniel Dombroski, Professor of Philosophy at Seattle University, put it expertly in the latest issue of Conscience as he talks about the role of religion in the public square. He says “one’s religious beliefs can be brought to bear on public policy issues, but only if doing so contributes to the overarching common good — which includes all the competing definitions of good, whether religious or nonreligious.”

By this principle, the hierarchy’s insistence on Catholic women foregoing birth control and the bishops’ rejection of abortion even in the face of dire circumstances are religious liberty transgressions in addition to betraying Catholic social justice teachings on compassion and taking care of the vulnerable. Since the bishops have been unable to convince people in the pews about their positions on reproductive health they instead double down on outdated and patronizing policies that try to control Catholics and undermine the common good.

The leaders of the Catholic church have used their political influence in developing countries and at the U.N. to block access to contraception for the only population they can control—poor women who are largely dependent on publicly funded family-planning programs. When the leaders of the Catholic church fail to use their power to support important public health initiatives they ignore important Catholic social justice teaching, at best. At worst, they actively thwart important public health initiatives that serve the common good and distort religious liberty.

So while policymakers in Brazil, for example, have started to reexamine the strict abortion laws because of the virus, the Catholic hierarchy remains intransigent on the issue of abortion in Brazil, no matter what the circumstance. In 2009, the Brazilian bishops attempted to prevent an abortion for a 9-year-old girl pregnant with twins after being raped by her stepfather. The hierarchy has similarly vowed to oppose any legalization of abortion prompted by the Zika virus, with one local bishop telling the New York Times: “Nothing justifies an abortion.”

What the Catholic faithful recognize is that abortion, like contraception, is part of the continuum of women’s healthcare. As such, the Zika virus is merely highlighting an issue that was critical for Latin American women even before the emergence of the virus. Access to appropriate reproductive health care will remain essential, even if a vaccine or other prevention measures eventually prove successful against the Zika crisis.

Catholics for Choice is committed to amplifying the voices of everyday Catholics so that the hierarchy might extend a listening and compassionate ear, and change harmful policy. Now is the time for Francis to show the compassion he preaches and implore his brother bishops around the world to put their compassion into action for women facing Zika risk, whether in Latin America or in the United States.

catholicsforchoice