Catholic bishops opposing Zika abortions

Ms Daniele Santos, 29, holding her son Juan Pedro who is 2-months-old and born with microcephaly, after bathing him at their house in Recife, Brazil, on Feb 9, 2016.
Ms Daniele Santos, 29, holding her son Juan Pedro who is 2-months-old and born with microcephaly, after bathing him at their house in Recife, Brazil, on Feb 9, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

Latin American church leaders also reject contraception despite govt health warnings

RIO DE JANEIRO • As the Zika virus spreads in Latin America, Catholic leaders are warning women against using contraceptives or having abortions, even as health officials in some countries are advising women not to get pregnant because of the risk of birth defects.

After a period of saying little, bishops in Latin America are beginning to speak up and reassert the church's opposition to birth control and abortion - positions that in Latin America are unpopular and often disregarded, even among Catholics.

"Contraceptives are not a solution," Bishop Leonardo Ulrich Steiner, secretary-general of the National Council of Bishops of Brazil, and an auxiliary bishop of Brasilia, said. "There is not a single change in the Church's position."

He urged couples to practise chastity or use "natural family planning", a method in which women monitor their menstrual cycles and abstain from sex when they are fertile.

The Zika virus is spread by Aedes mosquitoes, but researchers have found some cases transmitted by sexual contact.

 
 

Brazil, Ecuador, El Salvador, Colombia and Jamaica have advised women to delay pregnancy. But access to contraception is limited throughout the region, especially for poor and rural women.

Abortion is restricted in many countries, and it is illegal without exception in the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Nicaragua, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Experts are not yet sure whether Zika is the cause of a sudden surge of babies born in Brazil with microcephaly - unusually small heads and, often, damaged brains.

Microcephaly can lead to serious disabilities, but not always. There is no vaccine for the Zika virus, and no cure for microcephaly.

Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras denounced the notion of "therapeutic abortions" for women carrying babies with microcephaly.

"Therapeutic means curative, and abortion does not cure anything," he said, according to a report in the La Tribuna newspaper.

This is not a stance likely to win many new followers.

South America happens to be the continent with the highest proportion of Catholics who already disagree with the Church on abortion and birth control, according to a large international poll commissioned by Univision in 2014.

Seventy-three per cent of Catholics in Latin America said that abortion should be allowed in some or all cases, and 91 per cent supported the use of contraceptives - a higher percentage than in Europe or the United States.

No Vatican department has yet issued a statement about Zika, and it is not clear if Pope Francis will address it during his trip to Mexico.

"The Vatican is very well aware of the seriousness of this issue, and the Holy Father is very aware of it," said Reverend Thomas Rosica, the English-language media attache to the Vatican's press office. "We are waiting to see how the local churches in those countries respond."

But he said there was no leeway in Church teaching on abortion or contraception.

The Zika epidemic, he said, presents "an opportunity for the Church to recommit itself to the dignity and sacredness of life, even in very precarious moments like this".

Brazil, Ecuador, El Salvador, Colombia and Jamaica have advised women to delay pregnancy. But access to contraception is limited throughout the region, especially for poor and rural women.

Abortion is restricted in many countries, and it is illegal without exception in the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Nicaragua, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 15, 2016, with the headline 'Catholic bishops opposing Zika abortions'. Print Edition | Subscribe