The Pope’s Ideas on Birth Control Aren’t as Sexy as They Seem
On the papal plane from Mexico, Pope Francis said some things that caused a disturbance in the punditsphere. No, not about Trump (though yes, that too). When a reporter asked about Zika, the virus spreading through Latin America that may cause brain defects in unborn babies, the pope said “avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil,” leaving open the use of contraception.
Whoa if totally unprecedented. But in fact, use of modern contraceptives is high in Latin America as a whole, so the pope’s statements don’t exactly counter widely held views among Catholics in Latin America. In fact, his comments don’t really counter the Catholic Church’s views on birth control either.
In his own midair comments, Pope Francis cited Pope Paul VI, who in the 1960s allowed birth control pills for nuns in the Belgian Congo, who were at risk of being raped. Now, Pope Paul VI also issued Humanae vitae, the very encyclical that reaffirmed the Church’s rejection of artificial birth control. Yet his exception for the nuns getting birth control has existed just as long.
More recently in 2010, Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged condoms are acceptable in certain situations to prevent the spread AIDS. His comments then were controversial among conservatives, and they kicked off a discussion about when artificial birth control is acceptable. “The line that this is the liberal Pope Francis is inserting brand new questions into Catholic life just isn’t right,” says Charles Camosy, a theology professor at Fordham University. Bringing up the issue again doesn’t hurt, but it’s not a completely new line of thinking.
Putting theology aside, the pope’s comments are likely to have little practical impact in Latin America. “Family planning has been extremely successful in Latin America,” says Jane Bertrand, a Tulane University professor who has studied reproductive health in the region. “The idea that Latin American isn’t using birth control because of Catholicism simply isn’t the case.” While access to contraceptives is certainly not perfect, Latin America as a region has one of the highest rates of uptake in the developing world: 67 percent of married women use modern contraceptives, including condoms, the pill, and IUDs. That’s the same proportion as in the United States.
What’s more noteworthy may actually be the pope’s comments on abortion—for the opposite reason. When the reporter on the plane asked if birth control was the lesser of two evils compared to abortion when it comes to Zika, the pope answered, “Taking one life to save another, that’s what the Mafia does. It’s a crime. It’s an absolute evil.” That language surprised Camosy. “He’s never spoken about abortion in that way before” he says. “He’s condemned abortion before but usually with a more gentle hand.”
When it comes to abortion in Latin America, restrictions actually are widespread. Abortion is illegal with no exceptions in Chile, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua; in most of the other countries, the exceptions for abortion are narrow, like saving the life of the mother.
In the end, Pope Francis’s remarks really just reaffirm in the status quo—at a time when Zika is threatening to upend it.