Pope Francis and Zika


I’m no fan of Pope Francis. He is vaguely less hateful than a typical papacy, but sorry, couching archaic and malicious church policies in friendly language doesn’t actually change the harm he’s inflicting on folks with reproductive ability.

If you missed it: Pope Francis didn’t say women in areas affected by the Zika virus should use contraception. He didn’t even say they could use contraception.  Unsurprisingly, he unequivocally denied their right to abortion. His off-the-cuff comment consisted solely of mentioning that “avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil” in the case of Zika.

Catholic leaders everywhere immediately began walking back the Pope’s comments, emphasizing that it represented no change in Church stance. Many fell back on tired Church paradigms of abstinence: “From my perspective,” Jaime Pallares, member of the Ecuadorian and Catholic Mother, Mary and Queen organization, commented, “the best alternative would be to maintain some days of chastity. I’m not going to die of chastity.”

A woman looks on next to a banner as soldiers and municipal health workers take part in cleaning of the streets, gardens and homes as part of the city's efforts to prevent the spread of the Zika virus vector


The utter absurdity of this “plan”  is apparent to the naked eye, but I’ll go ahead and point out some of the flaws anyway. In 2004, 44% of married women in Colombia experienced spousal violence. More than half of pregnancies in much of Latin America are unplanned. But you’re right, Jaime, women can simply choose not to have sex with no expectation of coercion from their partner and consequently choose not to get pregnant. This perversion of the “right to choose” is a sham: as Everyday Feminism contributor Patricia Valoy writes, “the trouble with the right to choose is that it doesn’t really help the woman who doesn’t have enough clout in her relationship to choose which type of contraception to use, and whether or not to have an abortion.” Just as women often don’t have the autonomy to use birth control, they don’t have the autonomy to not become pregnant by simply refusing sex. Jaime Pallares knows this; his comment willfully ignores this reality, not just in Latin America but all over the world.

His position is only slightly more cavalier and tone-deaf than the position of the governments of Brazil, Ecuador, Guatemala, and El Salvador, who have simply advised women to not become pregnant. It’s almost as disingenuous as, say, the US government proclaiming abortion is legal while at the same time passing TRAP laws and continuing to implement the Hyde amendment to ensure low-income women don’t have access to abortion services.

It’s tempting to dismiss Pallares’ extraordinarily ignorant comment as the words of a straggler clinging to the outdated remnants of dusty Church doctrine. Hasn’t he been listening to Pope Francis’ shiny promises of a newer, more tolerant Church? He wants to give communion to – gasp! – divorced couples! He doesn’t think the Church should be “obsessed” on issues of sexuality and reproductive justice!

This is a facade. The Church has not changed. Abortion is still an “absolute evil”. Pope Francis doesn’t like talking about “technical” issues like condom usage to prevent HIV when “people die because they don’t have food or water or housing”. Because, apparently, it’s impossible for the Church to give the go-ahead on condom use without helplessly throwing up its hands in defeat on the issue of poverty reduction. It’s also apparently inconceivable that poverty could be linked to one’s ability to control when and if they have children. Of course, these are only two of the most obvious issues related to reproductive justice; in other areas, the Church is similarly staunch in its obsolete and destructive practices.

Of course, the Catholic identity of much of Latin America is responsible for the government’s inflexible policies on abortion and birth control. These policies have existed for decades; their harm is simply becoming particularly acute with the advent of Zika. Catholicism in Latin America is a remnant of colonialism. Perhaps instead of uttering ambiguous comments on the permissibility of birth control, Pope Francis should start acknowledging the role his church has played in causing harm to Latin American communities for the past few hundred years. That would be truly progressive. Pope Francis will never do this because he’s not willing to admit the damage the Church’s policies have resulted in in the first place. From this perspective,his comments are even more deceitful.

In conclusion, then: sorry, Pope Francis, but I’ll stop “obsessing” about the toxic policies of your institution when the Church supports abortion on demand and without apology, as the saying goes, to anyone in the world who needs one. I’ll stop when your institution stops enabling violence against the LGBTQ community by giving hate groups the words to frame their agendas of bigotry, or when you end any of your other innumerable policies that propagate violence and intolerance. I’ll stop when you support the use of condoms both to prevent the spread of HIV, other STIs, and as an acknowledgement that sex can be for pleasure, or for monetary gain, or for a multiplicity of reasons that don’t involve bearing children. I am fully cognizant of the reality that this will never happen. That’s fine. But I refuse to fall prey to Pope Francis’ deliberate and insidious attempts to alter the image of the Church without attempting to alter the foundation of Church doctrine that people like Jaime Pallares rely on.


Emily Stephens (SFS 2017) is the Organizing Coordinator of H*yas for Choice.