In this Feb. 17, 2016, file photo, Pope Francis meets journalists aboard the plane during the flight from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico to Rome, Italy. (Alessandro Di Meo/Pool Photo via AP, File)
Last week Pope Francis implied at a press conference that it would not be an “absolute evil” if women at risk of being infected with the Zika virus used contraception to avoid having babies with a serious, brain-damaging birth defect called microcephaly.
Francis’ comments were more nuanced, and less permissive, than many early reports made it seem. But they suffer from another problem: If it’s OK for women to use birth control to prevent birth defects, why isn’t it OK to use contraception in family planning? Because the scientific evidence suggests, strongly, that contraception saves the lives of hundreds of thousands of women every year. There’s also good evidence contraception reduces the risk of death for infants and children, and improves their lives.
That’s not counting the vast toll that the Catholic Church’s opposition to contraception has taken by slowing the use of condoms as a means for preventing the transmission of HIV and other diseases–just the benefits of giving women control over when and how often they give birth.
Pregnancy and childbirth are dangerous. They are more dangerous when women have children close together, not giving their bodies time to recover after the first childbirth or to build up nutritional stores. Unplanned pregnancies can mean that there are more children than there are resources to care for them.
The results are clear. A 2012 study by Johns Hopkins researchers, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and using data collected by the United Nations, estimated that, worldwide, 342,000 women died of maternal causes in 2008. But almost as many deaths–272,000–were prevented because of access to contraception. Delivering contraception in places where it is not available would save another 100,000 women’s lives.
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