Given the spread of the Zika virus and microcephaly within the Western Hemisphere, some have recommended the use of abortion and contraception as appropriate tools in the fight against this disease.
In the following statement, the Ethicists of the NCBC reply to numerous media inquiries and give guidance to faithful Catholics on this topic.
A suspected connection between the Zika virus and microcephaly, or abnormally small heads, in children who were in the womb when their mothers contracted the virus has raised public health alarms in South America, the United States, and elsewhere around the globe. There is little question that the risks associated with the virus should continue to be carefully examined by medical experts. Appropriate recommendations to safeguard the health of all persons, and particularly those most susceptible to any serious effects of the disease, are warranted. Zika is the most recent and high-profile instance of any number of diseases that might have deleterious effects on the unborn children whose mothers contract it while pregnant. In no way, however, would it justify a change in the Catholic Church's consistent teachings on the sacredness and inviolability of human life and the dignity and beauty of the means of transmitting life through marital relations. Direct abortion and contraceptive acts are intrinsically immoral and contrary to these great goods, and no circumstances can justify either.
Based on available information, it does not appear that Zika poses any particular threat to the life of a pregnant woman who contracts it. Although the association is not yet confirmed, the virus's harmful effects appear to be on the development of the child in her womb. Proposing abortion as a "medical solution" to the child's pathology is suggesting the direct destruction of innocent human life as a means of healing. This is an evident self-contradiction. Pope Pius XI addressed the issue of "therapeutic abortion" in his encyclical Casti connubii:
What could ever be a sufficient reason for excusing in any way the direct murder of the innocent? This is precisely what we are dealing with here. Whether inflicted upon the mother or upon the child, it is against the precept of God and the law of nature: "Thou shalt not kill." The life of each is equally sacred, and no one has the power, not even the public authority, to destroy it. (CC, n. 64)
More recently, in his encyclical Evangelium vitae, Pope St. John Paul II reaffirmed the Church's constant teaching:
The deliberate decision to deprive an innocent human being of his life is always morally evil and can never be licit either as an end in itself or as a means to a good end. (EV, n. 57)
Beyond the issue of abortion, governments and public health experts may be justified in recommending that married couples delay childbearing temporarily in view of the great number of apparent risks associated with contracting Zika during pregnancy. Married couples should prayerfully assess any such recommendations. Pope Paul VI's encyclical Humanae vitae clearly addresses this issue, teaching that "with regard to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time" (HV, n. 10). Therefore, the couple should choose whether and to what extent they will accept such a recommendation, assessing all of their pertinent spousal duties and reliable medical facts: "The exercise of responsible parenthood requires that husband and wife, keeping a right order of priorities, recognize their own duties toward God, themselves, their families and human society" (HV, n. 10). Delaying pregnancy can be achieved through complete or periodic abstinence during the wife's fertile period, which can be generally ascertained through bodily signs (natural family planning).
Humanae vitae also goes on to explain what "due respect to moral precepts" includes. Paul VI teaches that such respect excludes "any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation — whether as an end or as a means" (HV, n. 14). In response to the notion that contraception might be an acceptable lesser evil when compared to direct abortion, he further clarifies:
Neither is it valid to argue, as a justification for sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive, that a lesser evil is to be preferred to a greater one. . . . Though it is true that sometimes it is lawful to tolerate a lesser moral evil in order to avoid a greater evil or in order to promote a greater good, it is never lawful, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil that good may come of it — in other words, to intend directly something which of its very nature contradicts the moral order, and which must therefore be judged unworthy of man, even though the intention is to protect or promote the welfare of an individual, of a family or of society in general. (HV, n. 14)
This provides the foundation to answer a question increasingly being asked — whether it is ethical to use contraceptive methods, such as condoms, to reduce the likelihood of transmission of the Zika virus. Apart from the scientific questions about the actual effectiveness of condoms in disease prevention, using condoms to reduce the likelihood of Zika transmission amounts to directly intending contraceptive acts of intercourse as a means to a good end. It "deliberately frustrate[s] . . . the natural power and purpose" of marital intercourse (see CC, n. 54). In the case of a woman who is already pregnant, condom use could not have the effect of preventing pregnancy, but it would prevent a true marital act from taking place, which always involves a complete giving and receiving on the part of the husband and wife.
Some might also wonder about the use of contraceptive pills or intrauterine devices as a form of self-defense against the disease. This line of reasoning is invalid: hormonal contraceptives, IUDs, and morning-after pills do nothing to prevent sexual transmission of disease, but rather prevent the conception of a new human life or the implantation of an existing embryonic human being. Their use would amount to directly intending contraception or early abortion as a means of preventing potential birth defects. In other words, it would deliberately violate the unitive and procreative meanings of human self-giving in marital intimacy or purposefully destroy innocent human life, which are means that no good end can justify.
National Catholic Bioethics Center. "Zika Does Not Justify Abortion or Contraception." National Catholic Bioethics Center (February 22, 2016).
Reprinted with permission of the National Catholic Bioethics Center.
The National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC) has a long history of addressing ethical issues in the life sciences and medicine. Established in 1972, the Center is engaged in education, research, consultation, and publishing to promote and safeguard the dignity of the human person in health care and the life sciences. The Center is unique among bioethics organizations in that its message derives from the official teaching of the Catholic Church: drawing on the unique Catholic moral tradition that acknowledges the unity of faith and reason and builds on the solid foundation of natural law.
The Center publishes two journals (Ethics & Medics and The National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly) and at least one book annually on issues such as physician-assisted suicide, abortion, cloning, and embryonic stem cell research. Educational programs include the National Catholic Certification Program in Health Care Ethics and a variety of seminars and other events.
Inspired by the harmony of faith and reason, the Quarterly unites faith in Christ to reasoned and rigorous reflection upon the findings of the empirical and experimental sciences. While the Quarterly is committed to publishing material that is consonant with the magisterium of the Catholic Church, it remains open to other faiths and to secular viewpoints in the spirit of informed dialogue.
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