The White House has announced a one-day summit on the Zika virus next month, as the virus is expected to arrive in the continental U.S. in June or July. The meeting will discuss the best approaches to address the disease. We know that there are devastating effects of Zika on women in Latin America, where access to contraception and abortion is almost non-existent in places because of collusion between the Catholic hierarchy and governments. But what does it mean for a country like the United States, where abortion is legal and contraception is relatively available, but we have Supreme Court cases challenging the accessibility of each?
Scanning the headlines, one could be forgiven for concluding that Pope Francis had moved the needle on the contentious (for the Vatican) issue of contraception and the Catholic church: “Pope Signals Openness to Birth Control for Zika Virus,” “Contraceptives Could Be Permissible to Avoid Zika.”
Informal comments during an in-flight press conference don’t change the long-standing Vatican prohibition on the use of contraceptives. The Zika crisis, and the possibility of thousands of babies being born with life-threatening or life-altering disabilities, deserves a more thoughtful and developed response—one that Francis could have made during his trip to Mexico as part of his official agenda, but didn’t. It’s an indicator of the lack of importance and attention that Francis gives to issues that profoundly affect women, especially poor women.
It is apt, however, that Francis’ remarks are being compared to Pope Benedict’s statement that male prostitutes who are HIV positive could consider condom use as the lesser of two evils. Like Benedict’s statement, Francis’ off-hand condoning of contraception use in an emergency situation can hardly be seen as an endorsement of contraception. And like Benedict’s statement, many people who want to see Pope Francis as a liberal change-maker are hearing something that just isn’t there: real, substantial change on the issue of birth control.
That’s not to say that Pope Francis isn’t better than many of his predecessors on issues like poverty and the environment and, importantly, on pastoral concerns. I believe Francis is truly a breath of fresh air in many ways.
But not on contraception. The fact of the matter is that Catholics don’t need Pope Francis’ half-hearted permission to use contraceptives. As a 2014 Univision survey found, more than 90 percent of Latin American women already support the use of modern methods of contraception, and 99 percent of Catholic women in the US have used a form of modern contraception banned by the Vatican. What women, particularly poor women, do need is access to contraception that has often been blocked by the Catholic hierarchy. They need the hierarchy to stop blocking, or trying to block, access to contraception.
In Latin America, the Catholic church’s institutional control of much of the healthcare system, its undisputed political influence, and its continued support for patriarchal family norms that discourage women taking control of their fertility all conspire to limit their access to contraception. While better-off women in cities can purchase modern contraceptives, poor and rural women—those most affected by the Zika crisis—often have difficulty doing so.
In the US, the Catholic hierarchy continues to lobby for special treatment under the Affordable Care Act, which would leave perhaps hundreds of thousands of women without access to contraception. In the Zubik v. Burwell case that will appear before the Supreme Court later this month, seven religiously-affiliated institutions are asking for what is effectively a complete exemption from the birth control provision, which means leaving their employees without access to critical health services entirely.
Only affirmative support of contraception on behalf of the Vatican can turn the tide on these institutional blockages to contraception access and help ensure women can get contraception during the Zika crisis and beyond. That means overturning the Humanae Vitae encyclical’s ban on contraception and a positive assertion by the pope of contraceptive use as part of a healthy relationship. It means the support of Catholic-run health systems for the distribution of contraceptive supplies. And it means an immediate cessation of the Vatican’s lobbying efforts against family planning programs and funding at the United Nations and country level.
But make no mistake. Even if the ban on contraception were reversed tomorrow, women would still need access to safe abortion in Latin America. Pope Francis called abortion “a crime.” But I just returned from Uganda and Rwanda, where the real crime is the women I saw who were suffering the effects of illegal, unsafe abortions. I see women in the same situation every time I visit a maternity hospital in Latin America, where poor women put their lives on the line every day to stop being pregnant. This needless suffering and death could be prevented by access to safe abortion services.
Here, too, poor women will suffer disproportionately from the mounting restrictions on abortion access, such as through TRAP laws, which are being debated in the Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt case at the Supreme Court. In the light of this looming public health crisis, the US hierarchy’s court battles against no-cost contraceptive coverage in all employee health plans are even harder to understand. We can only hope that when the White House holds its one-day summit, they will put women at the center of our national health response.
So instead of cheerleading Francis’ inadequate response to the Zika crisis, we should take a step back and consider what women really need. They don’t need favors; they need justice from Pope Francis. They do not need a half-hearted, on-the-fly endorsement of contraception in limited situations. They need sustained access to appropriate contraception and abortion services. Pope Francis’ comments were business as usual, and not a compassionate and comprehensive response from a real social justice perspective. That would be change we could celebrate, and one each of us should be working towards.
O’Brien is president of Catholics for Choice.