Pope Francis meets journalists aboard the plane during the flight from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico to Rome, Italy. The pope has suggested that women threatened with the Zika virus could use artificial contraception but not abort their fetus, saying there's a clear moral difference between aborting a fetus and preventing a pregnancy Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016 . (Photo: AP)
Pope Francis insisted Thursday that abortion was always a crime but hinted that the Church could exceptionally relax its ban on contraception for women at risk of contracting the Zika virus.
"Abortion is not a lesser evil. It is a crime," Francis said in response to a question about how best to combat the outbreak across Latin America of a virus linked to birth defects.
But he added: "Avoiding a pregnancy is not an absolute evil."
The 79-year-old pontiff recalled that one of his predecessors, Paul VI (1963-1978) had authorised nuns working in Africa to use contraceptives in light of a high risk of them being raped by soldiers.
"We must not confuse the evil consisting of avoiding a pregnancy with abortion," Francis said. "Abortion is not a theological problem. It is a human problem, medical. One person is killed to save another. It is evil in itself, it is not a religious evil, it is a human evil.
"On the contrary, avoiding a pregnancy and, in the cases of Paul VI which I have cited, it was clear.
"I would also urge doctors to do everything they can to develop a vaccine."
The United Nations and aid organisations have urged countries hit by the virus to ensure women have access to contraception to reduce the risk of infection and the right to abortion should they decide to terminate a pregnancy.
Many Latin American countries outlaw abortion or allow it only if the mother's life is in danger.
After initially saying little about the outbreak, Catholic leaders in the region have recently begun to assert the Church's opposition to what it terms "artificial" birth control and abortion.
Instead of using condoms or the contraceptive pill, Church officials have been recommending abstinence or what they term natural family planning -- scheduling sexual relations for the least fertile periods of a woman's menstrual cycle.
Francis was also questioned about the recent revelation that another of his predecessors, John-Paul II, had an "intense" 30-year friendship with a married woman.
The current pope said he had been aware of his Polish predecessor's friendship with philosopher and writer Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka.
"A man lacks something if he does not know how to have a good rapport with a woman," he said, adding for good measure that, "sexists are sick".
Every priest should seek out the feelings of women on different subjects, he said.
"I like to receive advice from women. A friendship with a woman is not a sin - a love affair, on the contrary, is."
Although he has given no indication of a change in current Church teaching on the question, Francis has said that the requirement of celibacy for Catholic priests is not set in stone and could be reviewed.