Catholic leaders are speaking up and opening the debate on contraception use as the Zika virus spreads, especially in Latin America. Since the rates of brain damage among newborns are also rising in the region, most of them firmly state that women should accept microcephaly as some kind of a mission and warn them against using contraceptives or having abortions.

Representatives of the Roman Catholic Church expect Pope Francis to address the issue during his first trip to Mexico, a country that has seen an increase in Zika cases. Rev. Thomas Rosica, the English-language media attaché to the Vatican’s press office, said that it was not clear whether the Pope would actually talk about the situation as reported by the New York Times.

Bishops arrive for a meeting of Roman Catholic Church leaders at the Vatican. Credit: Andreas Solaro/AFP/GettyImages

However, he did affirm that the Vatican and Francis were very aware of the gravity of the epidemic and the threat it poses to public health, but he said they were waiting to see the reactions of local churches in the affected countries.

Still, Father Rosica said there were no realistic expectations of the church promoting or teaching on abortion or contraception. He remarked that the Zika epidemic represented “an opportunity for the church to recommit itself to the dignity and sacredness of life, even in very precarious moments like this”, according to the New York Times.

In Brazil, the most affected country of Latin America, secretary general of the National Council of Bishops Leonardo Ulrich said contraceptives were not a solution to the problem and that the church would not change its position.

He advised couples to practice chastity or use “natural family planning”, which consists of women monitoring their menstrual cycles so they know exactly when to abstain from sex in order to avoid pregnancy.

Other Catholic leaders are also urging people to use this method by citing a 2007 study published in Science Daily, which shows that natural family planning can be as effective as birth control pills as long as it is used properly. On the other hand, the United States Department of Health and Human Services reported that the failure rate for this method is 25 out of 100 women, whereas it is five out of 100 for birth control pills.

To date, no vaccine for the Zika virus has been developed and microcephaly has no cure. The Zika epidemic has been declared an international public health emergency by the World Health Organization, which advised governments to allow women full access to a wide range of contraceptive options and safe abortion services permitted by law.

Source: New York Times