As the Zika virus erupted across the Americas last week, and the World Health Organisation declared it a “public health emergency”, secularists reached for a ready scapegoat: the Catholic Church.
Simon Jenkins, writing in The Guardian, said Zika’s “greatest ally” was human intransigence – specifically, the Church’s refusal to support artificial birth control and abortion.
He opined: “The Catholic Church … discourages birth control, opposes state contraception programmes and bans abortion. In El Salvador an infected woman who seeks an abortion goes to jail. Common humanity demands that this stop.”
He concluded: “Since the present danger lies in conception, the relief must lie in access to contraception and ensuring reproductive rights. Insect repellents and lab experiments are no use to an expectant mother, frantic with fear, whose government and Church offer nothing but jail or despair.”
Unsurprisingly, Jenkins’s critique contains enough straw men to line a stable. The Church has a lot more to offer than “jail and despair”, but the problem is that not many Catholics know about it, let alone secular journalists who are writing to deadline.
In fact, the experts still do not fully understand the virus. All we know is that Zika is a mosquito-transmitted infection that women can pass to their unborn babies during pregnancy. But how and when this happens is unclear.
It is also uncertain whether there is a direct correlation between Zika and microcephaly – the birth defect characterised by incomplete brain development and unusually small heads.
The condition is being reported in the worst Zika-affected areas in Brazil at dramatically higher rates than normal of 100 cases for every 10,000 births. But “only a handful” of cases have been positively linked to Zika, according to Paul Tully, spokesman for the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children.
So far the Church has issued no directives. Following El Salvador’s advice that women should avoid pregnancy until 2018, Auxiliary Bishop Gregorio Rosa Chávez of San Salvador said that “the Church is going to take this very seriously”.
Undoubtedly the Church is in a difficult position. With secular outrage over Aids and condoms, the Catholic counter-argument ran: if everyone followed Church teaching, and kept sexual relationships inside marriage only, then the virus would never have been transmitted in the first place.
With Zika there is no such defence. Being faithful to Church teaching will stop no one being bitten by a mosquito infected with Zika. And, if a woman is pregnant, this virus could be passed on to her baby, risking microcephaly.
But the Church does have two solutions which are rarely considered or publicised: natural family planning or abstinence for a period. As Dr Robert Hardie, past president of the Catholic Medical Association, pointed out: “Natural methods of birth control, when carried out responsibly … carry a reliability rate similar to the oral contraceptive pill (in excess of 99 per cent effectiveness).”
But just as no condom can give you a 100 per cent protection against pregnancy, neither can natural family planning. Catholics weighing up whether they are putting a baby at risk – whether from microcephaly or other diseases such as rubella – have to consult their consciences and some may conclude it is safer to avoid sex altogether.
This is a consistent line for the Church to adopt. After all, it has always taught that sex before marriage is a mortal sin. Catholic couples around the world have managed chaste courtships for years before they were married and could plausibly re-enter that sort of relationship if necessary.
None of what the Church can say will stop the virus itself. The mundane work of reducing people’s exposure to mosquitos is all that can be done and no doubt Catholics will be among those raising awareness.
The Church also has something unique to offer amid the despair. Commenting on the outbreak, Paul Tully pointed out that “pro-abortion lawyers are already calling for the abortion of babies whose mothers may have contracted the virus”, even though the link with microcephaly remains unclear.
Simon Jenkins appealed for “common humanity”. Yet, when it comes to the rights of disabled unborn babies, humanity is in short supply. The Church can address this deficit by reminding the world that a disabled baby still remains worthy of love and is entitled to life.
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