(CN) - Planned Parenthood responded Friday to Pope Francis' comments on contraception and abortion in light of Zika virus outbreaks, arguing that health officials and women should have the ultimate say in their health issues.
The pope's comments came as 30 nations in Latin America and the Caribbean have experienced, or at risk for, active Zika transmissions. There is no vaccine for the virus, and it is difficult to detect.
Pope Francis hinted at the potential benefits of allowing contraception in nations facing outbreaks of the Zika virus on Thursday amid concerns over the virus' possible connection to microcephaly, which leads to reduced head size, brain damage and potential death in infants.
"We are speaking in terms of the conflict between the Fifth and Sixth Commandments," Francis said.
The pope contextualized the circumstances in Central and South America with the rape of nuns in Africa, which led Pope John Paul II to make an exception to the Church's ban on contraception. However, this does not apply to abortion, he said.
"Abortion is not a theological problem, it is a human problem. You kill one person to save another, in the best-case scenario," Francis said. "On the other hand, avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil."
Despite Francis' openness to contraception in light of Zika, advocacy groups argue that political and religious leaders should not be dictating reproductive health matters.
"They are not physicians. They are not part of the World Health Organization. They are weighing in on things that should be between a woman and her physician," Cita Walsh, the vice president of marketing and communications for Planned Parenthood Pacific Southwest, said.
Walsh pointed out the danger that stringent anti-abortion laws and limited access to contraception pose to nations affected by Zika.
"As Latin America addresses the Zika virus, it gives them an excellent opportunity to really look at reproductive justice and health equity issues," Walsh said. "At some point they need to address these issues."
Abortion is completely illegal in three Latin American and Caribbean nations, and highly restricted in 10 more. Among these 13, Haiti, Suriname and Guatemala are also well below the world average in access to and use of contraception.
The contraception prevalence rates for these nations are below 64 percent, the world average, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation and the WHO. France and the United States each have rates of 76 percent.
"It's about health equity. Health equity is a significant component of reproductive justice," Walsh said. "When women have limited access to contraception, it makes it very difficult for them to live their lives."
Walsh pointed out that there are at least 14 different contraception methods that are safe and relatively simple, and can enable women to manage their reproductive health without being insulted or overly burdened.
"This isn't a mosquito problem, this is a reproductive health problem," Walsh stated.Follow @@SeanDuffyCNS
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