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Pope says contraceptives may be permissible in Zika-affected countries

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Pope Francis said it may be acceptable for people to use contraception in countries affected by the Zika virus, in order to prevent children from being born with birth defects, The Wall Street Journal reports. The Catholic Church generally does not condone the use of contraception in most circumstances — even to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases like HIV — and Pope Francis has avoided making clear statements on the use of condoms before. However, the Church's special approval of contraception could help make it easier to obtain condoms and birth control.

The Catholic Church does not condone the use of contraception in most circumstances

The Pope made the statement to reporters on an overnight flight to Rome on Wednesday night. "Avoiding pregnancy isn't an absolute evil," the pope said, when it comes to stopping potential birth defects.

The comments were meant to address the ongoing outbreak of the mosquito-borne Zika virus in Brazil and nearby countries. Right now, as many as 1.5 million people in Brazil have been infected with the virus since March of 2014. Those who get Zika usually don't suffer any damaging symptoms, but the virus is potentially concerning for pregnant women. The outbreak has coincided with a recent spike in cases of microcephaly — in which infants are born with abnormally small heads. Scientists have yet to confirm if Zika is causing these birth defects, but there is strong evidence to support the theory that the conditions are linked.

Because of this, the Brazilian government and local religious figures have advised women to avoid getting pregnant until the Zika outbreak is under control. But it's very difficult for people in South America's poorest areas to get access to contraceptives; abortion is also strictly illegal in Brazil and the neighboring nations of Colombia, Venezuela, and Peru. Instead, government officials have instructed women to avoid having sex for years as a means of birth control, an option that many say is unrealistic.

But the pope, who is also Latin American, could help change things. Brazil and its surrounding nations are heavily influenced by the Catholic Church. The Vatican's approval of contraception under these special circumstances could make it easier for women to gain access to contraceptive products through new laws or policies. However, it's unlikely that the Church's position on abortion will change. The pope made it clear that abortion is an "absolute evil" and never acceptable under any circumstances.