Contraception and the Zika virus

Is it moral to use contraception, either a barrier method or a pill, to prevent conception of a child who might be greatly harmed by the Zika virus?


The Zika virus is transmitted by mosquitoes. The CDC says:

“The most common symptoms of Zika virus disease are fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis (red eyes). The illness is usually mild with symptoms lasting from several days to a week. Severe disease requiring hospitalization is uncommon.”

Zika is not a serious disease, except for pregnant women. Researchers believe that the Zika virus causes microcephaly in the prenatals of pregnant women, especially if they are infected during the first trimester. Microcephaly is a severe birth defect, which can result in: seizures, problems with speech or other developmental milestones (sitting, standing, and walking), intellectual disability, problems with movement and balance, feeding problems, difficulty swallowing, hearing loss, and vision problems [CDC page].

More information:

Everything You Need to Know About the Zika Virus Outbreak (ABC News)
Mosquito-Borne Zika Virus May Be Linked to Rise of Birth Defects, Puts Officials on Alert (ABC News)
CDC Zika information

Contraception Issue

Already, the governments of four nations where the Zika virus is prevalent (Brazil, Columbia, El Salvador, Ecuador) have recommended that women living in affected areas avoid pregnancy for the next 2 years. There are many Catholics in that region of the world. How does one avoid pregnancy? There are only three ways: (1) refrain from intercourse, (2) use natural family planning, (3) use contraception.

For Catholics, the first two ways are morally acceptable. All unmarried Catholics must refrain from all sexual activity in order to avoid grave sin, so contraception should not be an issue for them. Married Catholics can refrain from all sexual relations for a lengthy period of time, if they have a grave reason. A high risk of severe birth defects for any conceived prenatal would qualify as a grave reason. Married Catholics can also use NFP, but they must use it strictly when grave harm to any conceived prenatal is likely. A strict use of NFP would mean abstaining from sex for the majority of days of each monthly cycle.

Unfortunately, many Catholics do not follow Church teaching on sexual ethics. Many unmarried Catholics have sexual relations outside of marriage. Many married Catholics are unwilling to refrain from sexual relations, even when grave harm to their own unborn child is likely, and they are unwilling to refrain from sexual relations periodically, as NFP requires. The use of contraception, including abortifacient contraception, is very common among Catholics.

Is It Moral?

Is it moral to use contraception, either a barrier method or a pill, to prevent conception of a child who might be greatly harmed by the Zika virus? This question applies only in areas where the Zika virus is prevalent, and pregnant women are at substantial risk of infection. Even if the risk of infection is limited (as a percent), the harm to the prenatal is so severe that this risk weighs heavily in the third font of morality: circumstances.

The Roman Catholic Magisterium teaches that contraception, abortifacient contraception, and abortion are each intrinsically evil and always gravely immoral, and that all intrinsically evil acts are always immoral, regardless of intention or circumstances. This teaching is infallible under the ordinary and universal Magisterium.

Therefore, these circumstances — that a woman is at risk of infection of the Zika virus, and that her prenatal would be at risk for severe harm from the virus — cannot justify any intrinsically evil act. The grave sins of abortion, abortifacient contraception, and contraception are not justified by any circumstance, no matter how dire.

Does the intention to prevent severe harm to any conceived prenatal make the use of contraception moral, or no longer intrinsically evil, or no longer morally a type of contraception? No, it does not. The Magisterium teaches that intrinsically evil acts are always immoral, by the very nature of the act, regardless of intention or circumstances. Legitimate intentions on the part of Catholic spouses cannot justify any intrinsically evil act, such as contraception, direct sterilization, or abortion.

In magisterial teaching, intrinsically evil acts are often said to be “intentional” or “deliberate” or “voluntary”. But this is said in reference to the deliberate (intentional, voluntary) choice of the intrinsically evil act. The intended end is the font called “intention”, but the intentional choice of any act is the font called “moral object”. By intentionally choosing any particular act, the human person necessarily always also chooses its moral nature, and its moral object. The moral object is the end, in terms of morality, toward which the intentionally chosen act is intrinsically ordered. This ordering is the moral nature of the act. And when the moral object is evil, the act is intrinsically ordered toward evil: it is an intrinsically evil act, by its very nature.

The intentional choice of any intrinsically evil act is always a choice of evil, and is never justified. For the intended end (the purpose or reason for choosing the act) has no effect on the moral object (the end toward which the act is ordered, by its very nature). Therefore, contraception, abortifacient contraception, and abortion are never justified by a good intention, such as a medical purpose. A good intended end does not justify the choice of an intrinsically evil act as the means to that end.

I think that the Zika virus is going to prompt the Magisterium to reaffirm its teaching on contraception, as well as on intrinsically evil acts.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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1 Response to Contraception and the Zika virus

  1. Nicole says:

    Beautifully well structured and sound argument! I thourough it enjoyed reading it and will reference this piece for times to come!

    Thank you!

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