Zika's no-pregnancy warnings put Catholic teachings under pressure

Some Latin American countries are telling couples not to have children for months, even years, putting the Roman Catholic Church's anti-birth control teachings in a tough spot. 

Felipe Dana/ AP
Severina Raimunda holds her newborn twin grandchildren at the IMIP hospital in Recife, Brazil. One of the twins was diagnosed with microcephaly.

As health authorities struggle to organize a response to the Zika virus, a mosquito-borne infection many suspect is linked to a sharp rise in fetal abnormalities in Brazil, their best advice is simple: Don't get pregnant. 

That recommendation could be hard to execute anywhere in the world. But it could prove particularly difficult in Latin America, where many people's attitudes, and often laws, carry the imprint of the Catholic Church, whose catechism bars all artificial birth control. 

In Colombia, the Minister of Health and Social Protection has advised couples not to conceive until July 2016. In El Salvador, officials say to wait until 2018, advice that some see as evidence that governments are taking the virus seriously, but others consider a futile warning, tantamount to surrender. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared Zika an international public health emergency, primarily concerned about the suspected link between women infected while pregnant and the chance their fetuses will develop microcephaly, a condition in which babies are born with small heads, and may show developmental delays and other problems as they grow up. WHO has not approved the celibacy recommendations, however, which experts called an unusual measure.  

"I have never seen or read of any instance of a government warning its citizens not to get pregnant," Dr. Howard Markel, of the University of Michigan Medical School, told the New York Times. 

A majority of Latin Americans are Catholic, although the spread of evangelical Protestantism has rapidly eroded the Catholic Church's former near-monopoly on religion. Nevertheless, most Latin Americans approve of artificial birth control, meaning any barrier methods such as condoms or oral contraceptives. Among Latin American countries, a median of 66 percent of people say Catholics should be able to use birth control, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey, going against Church teachings that say the "transmission of life" is an integral purpose of sex. 

Pope Francis has made headlines for stressing compassion over strict doctrine on a few issues, such as love for gay and lesbian people. So far, however, the Church has been mum about whether the Zika emergency could impact its "pro-life" stance.

Some bending of the rules might not be out of the question, Rev. James Bretzke, a Jesuit priest and professor of theology at Boston College, told CNN. Continuing to emphasize the inherent evil of contraception in the face of suffering, such as microcephaly, would not necessarily be "the best pastoral approach," Rev. Bretzke said.

That the medical community says it has so few treatments or preventions for Zika puts extra pressure on the Church. So far, however, its leaders have not commented on the no-pregnancy recommendations. 

But even if individual priests support families' decisions, Latin America's strict anti-abortion laws may not. In Brazil, where abortion is almost always illegal, one judge has made an exception for microcephaly. Making that a rule, not an exception, could prove challenging for activists trying to roll back abortion laws: Catholic and evangelical leaders have actually been trying to strengthen anti-abortion legislation in recent years, provoking a fierce battle to let a nine-year-old raped by her stepfather secure an abortion in 2009. 

"Nothing justifies an abortion," the Rev. Luciano Brito, a spokesman for a Brazilian Archdiocese in the city where that case took place, emphasized to the media. 

Editor's note: This story has been edited to clarify that Catholic officials have not yet commented on recommendations to avoid pregnancy. 

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