Women who face a threat from the Zika virus could be allowed to use artificial contraception, Pope Francis said Wednesday, the Associated Press reported. He drew the line at abortion, however, citing a clear difference between preventing pregnancy and aborting a fetus. 

The pope's comments represented a shift in church stance on birth control.

Scientists strongly suspect but have not proved that the Zika virus is linked to microcephaly, a birth defect that can lead to severe developmental delays and disabilities. A jump in the number of cases in Latin America in recent months has prompted some governments in the region to urge women to delay getting pregnant. Women's health advocates have criticized that policy, given the lack of access to contraception in many countries there, due in part to the Catholic Church's opposition to it. Nearly 40 percent of the world's Catholics live in Latin America, where 69 percent of adults identified as Catholic in 2014.

While aboard the papal plane Wednesday, en route back to the Vatican from a trip to Mexico, Pope Francis was asked whether abortion or birth control was a "lesser evil." His response was birth control when used under exceptional circumstances -- in response to the Zika virus, for example.

Even if the pope condones the use of birth control, people in the region may not have access to it. In 2015, clinics in the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti and Honduras ran out of contraceptives, a recent report by the Kaiser Family Foundation found.

In the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Nicaragua, abortion is banned, while Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Paraguay, Suriname and Venezuela allow the procedure only to save the mother's life. Nevertheless, in 2008, 4.4 million women had abortions in Latin America and the Caribbean, with about 95 percent of the procedures considered unsafe.

The majority of Catholics in Latin America support a change in church stance on contraception, along the lines of Pope Francis' suggestion. In a survey published in 2014, the Pew Research Center found that on average, 66 percent of Catholics in the region said the church should allow the use of artificial birth control. The percentage was even higher -- roughly eight in 10 -- in Chile, Venezuela, Argentina and Uruguay when respondents were asked if they favored a change in the Catholic Church's teachings on contraception.