Will the Church Really Embrace Contraception to Fight the Zika Virus?

The Catholic Church’s history with contraception is already much more complicated than most realize—but will a health crisis be enough to change old policies?

02.22.16 6:00 PM ET

Pope Francis recently made international headlines for two reasons: getting into a verbal dustup with presidential candidate and professional dustup-starter Donald Trump and for his comments on birth control.

When asked directly whether the use of artificial contraception might be permissible due to the spread of the pregnancy-complicating Zika virus, he signaled a more progressive stance than the one publicly held by the church, saying that avoiding pregnancy is not an “absolute evil.”

While some are reporting the pontiff’s remarks as a major surprise, anyone who has followed the Catholic Church’s history on the issue of contraception, and this Pope in particular, would know that it was really only a matter of time before the guided the church back to a more moderate position.

In an email to The Daily Beast, Jonathan Eig, author of The Birth of the Pill, wrote, “The Catholic Church considered allowing the birth control pill, and a committee of bishops did recommend its acceptance, only to have the pope overrule the committee.”

The Committee Eig was referring to was the 1963 Papal Commission on Population and Birth Control, which was established by Pope John XXIII to address the growing role of the contraceptive pill in society and its impact on the church. Following his death, the next papal leader, Pope Paul VI, expanded the size and scope of the commission to include cardinals, bishops and lay experts.

Though the majority expressed support for the church supporting contraception use, the Pope sided with the minority opinion articulated in a report by Karol Wojtyla, who would later become Pope John Paul II. This would result in the 1968 Humana Vitae, which would become the definitive document outlining the church’s positions on family planning.

It is worth noting that one of the creators of the birth control pill, Dr. John Rock, was a devout Catholic who spent much of his later career trying to win the church’s support for contraception. He even authored a book on the struggle, The Time Has Come: A Catholic Doctor’s Proposals to End the Battle over Birth Control. Though Rock did not live to see his goal of the Catholic Church embracing contraception wholesale become a reality, it has made concessions and exceptions over the years that have signaled that such an embrace is possible. For instance, artificial contraception is permitted for those Catholics who take it to address other health woes, such as women who suffer from severe premenstrual symptoms, so long as its not used to prevent pregnancy.

As explained by Melissa Moschella, an assistant professor at the Catholic University of America, ultimately the church believes that the primary goal of marriage and the bonds of physical intimacy are to produce children. But she also explained that the same document that guides Catholics on this issue, the Humana Vitae, is also clear about the importance of “responsible parenthood.”

“I think there is a popular misconception because the church is against artificial contraception, a lot of people assume the church thinks that you ought to constantly be trying to have a new child and have as many children as physically possible. And that’s not true,” Moschella said in a phone interview.

Though Moschella reiterated during our discussion (which took place before the Pope’s remarks) that she does not anticipate Zika impacting the church’s official position on contraception, she noted that the virus does speak to the issue of “responsible parenthood.”

“The church understands and emphasizes that it is the job of the parent—the husband and the wife to decide prayerfully and conscientiously whether or not and when to have another child and so that’s what they mean by responsible parenthood. Do we have sufficient resources? Is it going to be too much of a strain perhaps on the mother’s health or many other factors that may be at play?”

That includes whether a child may be in physical danger upon conception due to a virus like Zika, which has been linked to microcephaly in babies.

She added, “It’s not that the heightened possibility that a child may have a serious illness means they must absolutely avoid pregnancy, but it means it is a serious factor to consider, particularly if they think they lack the time, the energy or resources to give an ill child the care they need. This would be a reason they should try to avoid pregnancy in the means the church allows for.”

Those means include what is commonly referred to as the “rhythm method,” or calendar-based family planning in which a woman tracks her menstrual cycle to determine her most fertile days to avoid sex during that time. Moschella pointed to the benefits some proponents of this method celebrate, such as not filling your bodies with the hormones that are the norm with the pill.

But of course reliance on such a method also means a woman must be empowered enough in her culture, society and home to regularly say no to sex with her husband. That may be more a viable strategy for women in countries like America. But in countries with widespread poverty and inequality, such as the Latin American countries in which the Zika crisis began, the likelihood of a woman being able to always dictate when she wants to have sex is not necessarily realistic, and Pope Francis’s remarks seemed to reference the role such inequity can play in a woman’s efforts to prevent pregnancy. He noted that Pope Paul VI authorized access to contraception for nuns who faced the possibility of rape in war-torn countries—something not widely known until his comments. 

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Though Pope Francis is widely considered one of the most progressive popes in history, the actions of both his immediate predecessor Pope Benedict and Pope Paul VI prove that the church has been attempting to balance theology, humanity, and reality for years. Pope Benedict is widely viewed as more conservative, yet he was said to discuss condoms as a legitimate moral consideration in the fight against AIDS in Africa. While those discussions centered primarily on adult-to-adult transmission, he never could have anticipated a crisis like Zika that primarily harms children.

But now that we’re here, Pope Francis is finally forcing the church to confront its complicated, somewhat confusing history on an issue that has been politically volatile in recent years, but is now quickly becoming viewed as an international health and human-rights issue.

Last year when Pope Francis said Catholics have a responsibility not to “breed like bunny rabbits,” many saw the remarks as opening the door for him to lead the church to join the majority of Catholics who have already made up their minds to wholeheartedly embrace contraception. After all, a Gallup poll found 82 percent of Catholics consider birth control “morally acceptable,” and 98 percent of Catholic women have used birth control.

Perhaps not yet, but as the church tries to figure out a way to confront the Zika virus, that door just opened a little more.