Zika outbreak raises ethical questions

Faced with a growing number of birth defects associated with the Zika virus, on Feb. 1, the director of the World Health Organization declared that the current outbreak sweeping portions of the Americas is an “extraordinary event” that constitutes “a public health emergency of international concern.”

Spread mostly by mosquitoes, but also by sexual contact, the Zika virus is linked to serious birth defects, one of the most serious of which is microcephaly, in which a child is born with a head less than half its normal size. Such children will struggle with the disability and most likely never lead independent lives.

In El Salvador and Colombia, women are being urged to not get pregnant until 2018 or later. In Brazil, fear of the Zika virus has prompted discussions about loosening the country’s strict abortion laws. How does the Church — and how do Catholics — respond to these challenges?

Dignity of life

The Zika virus raises serious ethical questions. Should women who may have been exposed to the virus not get pregnant? If they are already pregnant, should they get an abortion? How can we respond to this increasingly worldwide problem?

The answers to these questions, from the perspective of a follower of Jesus, are sometimes difficult but always based on the dignity and value of every human being. 

In the words of Father Richard John Neuhaus, “We contend, and we contend relentlessly, for the dignity of the human person, of every human person, created in the image and likeness of God, destined from eternity for eternity every human person, no matter how weak or how strong, no matter how young or how old, no matter how productive or how burdensome, no matter how welcome or how inconvenient. Nobody is a nobody.”

If we follow the teachings of Jesus and believe that every single human being deserves protection by law and welcome in life, then the prenatal human beings who may be adversely affected by Zika should be treated with care, concern and compassion rather than killed in order to “solve” the problem. When we have serious human problems — such as the Zika virus leading to fetal deformity — we try to destroy the problem not destroy the person. Since killing innocent human beings is always morally wrong, we stand on principle in defending the right to live of every innocent human being, even those not yet born, even those with serious handicap.

Couple’s decision

The question of pregnancy is more difficult to answer. When to have a child and how many children a couple should have is a question for the couple. The government should not impinge upon the decision-making of an individual couple. Couples can be generous with God, as couples can be generous with their financial donations to charity, but precisely how generous to be and in what ways is a choice that couples of faith make together in taking God’s generosity.

It is reasonable and prudent for couples to take into account the concrete circumstances of their lives as well as the likelihood of various problems arising. Is our health as potential parents adequate? Is our income secure? Is war likely to break out? Many questions might be asked before trying to achieve pregnancy.

So, in the current situation, if a couple has been exposed to the Zika virus, they could very well come to the reasonable conclusion that they should avoid pregnancy for fear of making a child who would then become disabled. The Church has long recognized the moral legitimacy of using natural family planning for a variety of reasons.

On the other hand, another couple, taking into account all foreseeable and reasonable circumstances, might come to the conclusion that they should not avoid pregnancy. For example, you could imagine a couple who had only a short time left in terms of the wife’s fertility.

The 44-year-old woman might reason with her husband, “Well, if I don’t have a child now, I will probably never be able to have a child at all.”

Practical wisdom

Of course, another couple in the same circumstances might come to a different conclusion. Practical wisdom teaches us to always avoid some actions — like murder, theft and perjury — but practical wisdom does not dictate that every person needs to act in the same way even if the circumstances are identical.

Couples with practical wisdom can and do come to different conclusions about many matters. Taking on new responsibilities as well as serious risks is something some couples are more open to than others. For this reason, responsible parenthood is exercised in a variety of ways. Some couples have seven kids and some couples may prudently choose to have only one. There is no “one size fits all” approach that is correct for everyone in terms of the number of children to have or in terms of whether to have a child at any particular time, as long as the couple is cooperating with God and not preventing pregnancy by artificial means.

Whatever concrete decisions a couple makes, the Church is called to act with love and compassion. One way is to support hospitals and families who have microcephalic children. Another way is to pray and work for solutions to mitigate or even eliminate the Zika virus. This call to love extends to every single human being, including those — no, especially those — with serious disabilities.

Christopher Kaczor is a professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

A version of this story appears in the Feb. 21, 2016, issue of OSV Newsweekly on page 6.