Pope Francis tentatively endorses contraception during Zika outbreak.

Pope Says Contraception Is Okay by Him for Women in Zika Countries

Pope Says Contraception Is Okay by Him for Women in Zika Countries

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Feb. 18 2016 4:55 PM

Pope Says Contraception Is Okay by Him for Women in Zika Countries

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A pregnant woman waits to be attended at the Maternal and Children's Hospital in Tegucigalpa on January 21, 2016.

Photo by ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images

While health officials in Latin America have been advising women to avoid getting pregnant during the Zika virus outbreak, Catholic officials have been rushing to counteract that advice. This global emergency, Catholic bishops in Latin America have recently said, doesn’t change a thing about the church’s stance on abortion or artificial contraception, which remains: Don’t do it.

Except… maybe do use contraception, if you must. This is the essentially the message of Pope Francis, who set a precedent on Thursday when he said that contraception may be justified for women in regions affected by Zika to prevent the birth of children with microcephaly. According to Francis, in these extreme circumstances, contraception can be seen as the “lesser of two evils”—the greater evil, according to the church, being abortion.

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To be clear, abortion is still a total no-no. More from ABC News:

Francis did say in strong terms that abortion is "an absolute evil" and should not be considered even if there is a risk the infant will be born with microcephaly.

The contraception news, though, is still a big deal. While Francis has previously chastised the church for its “obsession” with contraception and abortion—and even caused some confusion with the comment that Catholics need not breed “like rabbits”—he had never previously challenged the church's contraception prohibition. He has supported the church’s ban on condoms even in places like Kenya and Uganda, which have some of the highest HIV-infection rates in the world.

That's better than the initial response of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who once famously said condoms were not the answer to the continent’s fight on AIDS and could make the problem worse, causing mass facepalms among AIDS activists and health care workers everywhere. Yet Benedict later softened his stance: "In certain cases, where the intention is to reduce the risk of infection, it can nevertheless be a first step on the way to another, more humane sexuality," he said the following year.

Francis appears to be building on the shift that Benedict started, however small. The Pope's latest declaration, which he made during his flight Wednesday back to Rome following a six-day trip to Cuba and Mexico, could also be a one-time-only exception. Francis compared the situation to when Pope Paul VI made a special decree that nuns in Africa could use contraception when they faced the threat of rape. "Avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil," Francis said. "In certain cases, as in this one, such as the one I mentioned of Blessed Paul VI, it was clear.”

He added: “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.” 

Rachel E. Gross is the science web editor at Smithsonian.