During a press conference on Wednesday, Pope Francis suggested it might be permissible for Catholic women to use contraception to avoid pregnancy if they are threatened by the Zika virus.
"Avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil," Francis said. "In certain cases, as in this one, as in that one I mentioned of Blessed Paul VI, it was clear. I would also urge doctors to do their utmost to find vaccines against these mosquitoes that carry this disease."
The Paul VI case the pope mentioned refers to an emergency exception to the contraception ban, granted in the 1960s, for nuns working in the Belgian Congo who were at risk of rape.
If Pope Francis actually granted an exception for women in Zika-afflicted areas, it would be a huge deal. He has suggested before that the church should focus less on contraception and abortion issues — but he hasn't actually proposed any policy changes.
The church bans contraception and abortion outright. This has major public health consequences, especially for developing countries that are heavily Catholic, like in Latin America.
Women in Latin American countries are at high risk for contracting the Zika virus, which is suspected to cause severe birth defects. But abortion is often banned in the region, and contraception can be hard to come by.
An exception to the church's contraception ban due to Zika could have huge impacts, since the virus potentially affects so many women in Latin America. It could open the door for more liberal reproductive health laws in these countries, like the rubella virus did for abortion in the United States in the 1960s. Or it could even lead the church to revisit its 1968 decision to keep contraception illegal, despite recommendations to the contrary from a Catholic commission.
Pope Francis's remarks about contraception were surprising. But unsurprisingly, he was less forgiving about abortion. He said he would not condone abortion for women affected by Zika, and called abortion "a crime, an absolute evil."