Mountains, Molehills, Contraception, and The Zika Virus

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Image by KOREA.NET – Official page of the Republic of Korea, via Flickr

When I heard the radio headline yesterday afternoon, I groaned. Because I knew I was going to have to blog about the pope’s comments, and as a proponent of natural family planning, it would be hard to convince anyone that I’m approaching the topic objectively.

But there under the awning of the Gerbes fuel station, I took a deep breath, and I said to myself, “Okay. If Pope Francis does move us away from the teachings on contraception, I will be open to the Spirit, and I will be a better person for it.”

Of course, the headline was sensationalized; when I listened to the report, it became clear that a Mount Everest is being made out of, well, a hillock at most. So here are my thoughts, as someone who’s been studying and reflecting upon this extremely complex and far-reaching topic for sixteen years.

1. There’s always been a medical exception to the birth control teaching. So why don’t we hear about it? Well, this is just my opinion, but I think it’s because it can’t be sufficiently addressed in 140 characters, and since that’s about all most of us are willing to listen to these days, it’s better to stick to the “in general” rule of thumb and deal with the exceptions case by case. There are other reasons, of course. The medical exception is really easy to abuse, for one thing. For another, hormonal birth control is used far too often as a bandaid to cover up problems that need to be addressed at the level of cause, not symptom (i.e. irregularity, PMS, abdominal pain, etc). I wrote a lot about that for this post and then realized it was irrelevant, so I may post those thoughts on Monday.

2. If you think logically, you have to realize that the only form of contraception the pope is even addressing in the case of Zika is barrier methods*; hormones are going to do absolutely nothing to prevent disease transmission. And if you think logically, it should also be clear that barriers aren’t a slam dunk fix. They’ll surely make a difference, but there are plenty of people still getting STDs in America, and we have plenty of condoms.

3. A caution about oversimplification. The story I read on CNN yesterday ended with a quote from a Catholic theologian that I am guessing was taken out of context, because as it stands it makes no sense at all (here’s the original article; oddly enough, the link I copied yesterday goes to a very different article this morning, in which Bretzke isn’t quoted at all. Hmm.):

“In Catholic Church teaching, some would say it would be acceptable to try to prevent conception in cases like this,” Bretzke said.

Why does this make no sense? Because the Catholic Church has never said you can’t try to avoid pregnancy. Never. Ever. The assumption in the secular culture, even when lip service is paid to natural family planning (as it is in the CNN article), is that there are only two paths: contraception or perpetual pregnancy. The Church never said you can’t plan your family. It just says it matters to our human dignity how you do it.

4. Finally: NFP proponents also need to take a deep breath and recognize that NFP can’t prevent Zika, either. Just as it couldn’t help the nuns in the case Pope Francis invoked–the exception given to nuns who were being repeatedly raped. So it makes perfect sense to see the Pope offering this very specific exception to the Church’s teaching on birth control. He would be less Christlike if he did not.

*This argument, it was pointed out to me, is just plain wrong; I addressed that in another post here.

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3 thoughts on “Mountains, Molehills, Contraception, and The Zika Virus

  1. Cecelia

    There was no particular reason to believe the Pope’s comment was just about barrier methods.

    Your reasoning on that point seems to suggest he was trying to prevent the spread of the disease by barrier methods, but Zika is not spread like an STD through bodily fluids like semen. It’s spread through mosquito bites. No form of birth control prevents Zika. Birth control can only prevent pregnancy.

    So the Pope certainly was advocating preventing pregnancy, not advocating that the disease not be spread. Which makes sense since my impression is that Zika is dangerous to babies in the womb but not that big a deal to anyone else.

    The Pope’s quote I read didn’t reference anything about any particular kind of contraception – only that contraception was preferable to abortion. There was nothing to suggest he limited his “lesser of two evils” approval to a certain type of contraception. (I do not count abortion as a type of contraception.)

    The discussion of barrier methods was introduced because of people suggesting this might be precedent for a change in the official Catholic take on barrier methods in Africa where AiDS is rampant – and which disease can be prevented from spreading through barrier methods (though not reliably) and can’t be prevented by hormonal methods.

    Your point about the medical exception always existing is interesting and not one I knew though.

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