International Planned Parenthood Federation and local abortion-rights groups in Brazil and Colombia have tapped into public alarm about Zika to revitalize efforts to secure abortion on demand. All three countries are predominantly Catholic.
“We hope Zika changes the debate,” Silvia Plana, director of Coordination for Life and Health of Women, an abortion-rights group in Colombia, told The Washington Post.
Meanwhile, several public-health officials and judges in countries battling the epidemic have signaled their willingness to modify abortion laws.
In Brazil, where abortions are permitted in cases of incest and to protect the life of the mother, legal specialists are pushing for a review of the nation’s abortion laws by the country’s highest court, and one judge has already pledged to provide exemptions for women whose unborn children are at high risk for microcephaly.
In Colombia, where abortion is illegal except to save the life of the mother, in cases of incest and the threat of fetal abnormalities, authorities permitted a woman who was 32 weeks into her pregnancy to have an abortion, after tests confirmed the child had microcephaly, accompanied by severe deformities.
Reportedly, it was the first known case in the country of a Zika-infected woman undergoing an abortion. And the decision to allow an abortion in the third trimester of a pregnancy lit up social media in Colombia. The controversy pointed to one disturbing fact that rarely surfaces in media reports: Cases of microcephaly cannot be definitively confirmed until late in the pregnancy. If a nation’s laws are modified to permit abortion in such cases, lawmakers will effectively approve late-term abortions. With an estimated 3,100 expectant mothers in Colombia testing positive for the virus, many more women will likely feel pressure to end their pregnancies.
As Colombia and other countries in Latin America struggle to address the moral conundrum posed by the crisis, the local Catholic Church can help public authorities and individuals make sound ethical decisions that affirm the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death. Meanwhile, dioceses can organize parishes to provide support groups for pregnant women who have been exposed to the virus and help for families dealing with the challenge of caring for children with microcephaly.
But the abortion movement’s talking points also feature a pointed, if skewed, critique of Catholic moral doctrine, which prohibits direct abortion and bars the use of artificial contraception.
Early media reports suggest that message has already gained some traction in Latin America, and Church leaders and pro-life activists and bioethicists must be equally nimble in addressing this fast-moving crisis.
The Brazilian bishops have attacked the campaign to promote abortion as a legitimate public-health response to the epidemic.
As noted in our front-page story, the bishops, in a Feb. 4 statement, rejected efforts to loosen restrictions on abortion and called on politicians to “secure medical assistance to the persons affected by the disease, especially babies with microcephaly and their families.”
The Colombian bishops have also issued a statement that addresses the moral and practical issues raised by the crisis. But, at press time, no other national bishops’ conferences had offered a formal rebuke to abortion-rights activists or affirmed the right to life of unborn children with microcephaly.
At present, critics of Church teaching have wasted little time exploiting a lopsided debate fueled by media outlets that are sympathetic to the arguments of Planned Parenthood and its allies.
“Concern Grows at Catholic Church’s Silence Over Zika Virus Crisis,” read one headline in The Guardian, the British newspaper, which noted that opponents of Catholic sexual ethics had attacked the Church’s moral credibility, drawing a comparison with the Church’s controversial proscription of condoms during the AIDS epidemic.
The reference to the AIDS crisis underscores the stakes involved for the Church and the faithful, as a new international “emergency” roils the lives of Catholics in Latin America, where almost 40% of the world’s Catholics live. But specialists in apologetics have also learned a great deal since opponents of Catholic teaching sought to scapegoat the Church during the AIDS epidemic. For example, Church leaders in Latin America can take a page from English-language initiatives, like Catholic Voices, which trains the faithful to present the Church’s approach to sensitive social issues with clarity and compassion. The Church can also provide a broader forum for young people like Ana Carolina Cáceres, a journalist who has microcephaly and stepped up during the crisis to share her story. (See page 4.)
In the weeks and months ahead, her voice should inspire Church leaders in Latin America to effectively engage the death-dealing arguments of abortion activists that exploit the fears of an anxious public.
This is a moral and spiritual battle that cannot be postponed for another day. The Church cannot “genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be,” if we fail to defend the life of the unborn child, stated Pope Francis in Laudato Si (The Care for Our Common Home), his encyclical released last year.
“If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of the new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away.”