Pope Francis suggested the use of contraceptives as a means to prevent the spread of the Zika virus, according to reports. The stance is seemingly at odds with that of the Catholic Church, which bans most forms of birth control.
The pontiff, speaking to the media on his plane, reportedly decried abortion as an "absolute evil," but added that women at the risk of contracting Zika could avoid pregnancy.
"Abortion is to kill someone in order to save another. This is what the Mafia does. On the other hand, avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil," the pope said, CNN reported.
He also reportedly made a reference to a historical exception when a predecessor, Pope Paul VI, allowed African nuns to use contraceptives in cases of rape.
The pontiff's remarks come at a time when Latin America is grappling with the Zika outbreak and health advisories issued by World Health Organisation (WHO) have called for emergency contraception and counselling for women who do not wish to become pregnant.
A recent study in Brazil claimed increasing evidence of links between the Zika virus and microcephaly—a neurological birth defect characterized by an abnormal smallness of the head due to incomplete brain development — confirming the presence of Zika virus in the amniotic fluid of two women who had Zika-like symptoms during their pregnancies.
Medical experts suspect the virus is the cause for microcephaly in more than 4,000 newborns in Brazil, and fear this might have led to a surge in the cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome — another neurological condition, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The pope's comments could potentially bring relief to many Catholic families in Latin America who can now consider family planning to tackle the spread of the virus, a method also recommended by the WHO.
According to BBC, church officials have been recommending abstinence or natural family planning instead of using condoms or the contraceptive pill as a preventive measure in response to the virus' spread.
Earlier this month, Bishop Leonardo Ulrich Steiner, secretary general of the National Council of Bishops of Brazil, told CNN: "Contraceptives are not a solution," adding: "There is not a single change in the church's position."