Zika and the Abortion Debate: This Changes Everything

Alex Sadler, JHU:

A virus that the World Health Organization is now classifying as a global health emergency, the Zika virus has taken Latin America by storm. Discovered almost 70 years ago in Uganda, the Zika virus has spread throughout Latin America with the first cases emerging in May 2015. Although most that are infected with Zika see little to no symptoms, the virus poses a severe threat to pregnant women. Researchers propose that there may be a link between the virus and the sharp rise of babies being born with the formerly rare birth defect, microcephaly. Microcephaly is a birth defect that causes babies to born with abnormally small heads and incomplete brain development; the defect is typically accompanied by mental retardation. Since its emergence in Brazil last year, the virus has spread to over 20 different countries in Latin America including Mexico, Colombia, and Venezuela.

A common measure to restrict the spread of the virus has been national decrees asking women to avoid pregnancy for months or years (El Salvador has asked women to not have children until 2018). Installing these measures would be incredibly challenging in many of these countries. For the most part, there is little sexual education in schools, limited access to condoms, and severely restrictive abortion laws. Of the countries affected, only Guyana and French Guinea allow abortion without restriction as to reason. The majority of countries, including Brazil and Mexico, only allow abortions when the life of the mother is in danger. In El Salvador, abortion is strictly prohibited on any and all bases. The same country that wants to prohibit childbirths until 2018 also has one of the strictest abortion laws in the world.

The spread of Zika has sparked international debates and conversations to change restrictive abortion laws. The movement has been spurred on by international women’s advocacy groups but can be seen most in Brazil. In the country’s capital, Brasilia, scholars are petitioning the highest court in the country to allow abortions in the special case that the fetus has been diagnosed with microcephaly. Under today’s law, abortion is only allowed when the woman’s life is in danger or if she has been raped. Although the laws are stringent in this heavily Catholic nation, strides have been taken to increase access to abortion. A judge in the Brazilian state of Goiás has stated that he intends to authorize women to have access to abortion if it can be proven that the baby they are pregnant with is likely to be a stillborn due to microcephaly. For many Brazilians, this is not enough. The calls for full abortion rights have been heard throughout the country. In popular newspaper O Globo, sociologist Jacqueline Pitanguy calls on the Brazilian government to legalize abortion, “If Brazilian law desires to mimic the countries considered examples of civilized nations, women today should not face the fear of being pregnant with a fetus with microcephaly. On behalf of her right to reproductive autonomy and emotional integrity of her and her family, she should have the ability to choose to carry out or stop her pregnancy.”

International pressures have begun to play a role in the call for extended abortion rights. Last week, the United Nations called on Latin American governments to allow women further access to abortion. In fact, the UN went one step further to call abortion a fundamental human right. Amnesty International has also joined the movement as it has helped stage protests in Central American countries Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras to call for increased access to abortion rights. New reports from Amnesty International are stating that there has been an increase in backstreet abortions, a dangerous alternative in countries where abortion is not legal.

This is not the first time where the spread of a disease lead to increased calls for abortion rights. The United States suffered a rubella outbreak in the 1960’s, when abortion was illegal. Pregnant women infected with rubella had an 85% chance of giving birth to a baby with congenital rubella syndrome, which can cause deafness, sight problems, heart problems, and microcephaly. After a brave woman went public with her dilemma to abort or not, a national debate was stirred in the United States. Less than ten years later, the milestone Roe v. Wade case went to the Supreme Court and it was decided that abortion would be legalized in the United States.

It is unclear how the affected countries will proceed in their handling of the crisis and if they will even address the issue of abortion. Ángela Rivas, a Salvadoran abortion rights activist, warns that the debate will continue and women will continue to receive clandestine abortions and be sent to jail. In El Salvador, a woman caught having an abortion can face up to 40 years in prison. For now, abortion advocates continue to protest their governments while calling on people to practice safe sex throughout these troubling times.

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