The Zika virus outbreak that began in 2015 has quickly spread across Latin America, inciting fear into many women. Zika, which is spread by mosquitos, causes birth defects when a pregnant woman is infected, most notably microcephaly, an abnormally small and underdeveloped brain. In a traditionally Catholic region, access to abortions is heavily restricted, which is now causing a massive public outcry. Abortion activists in the region are redoubling their efforts in an attempt to free women who are being forced to carry to term fetuses that may suffer from a severe birth defect. The UN has called for birth control and abortion access for women in Zika affected areas, calling it a human right.
Activists argue that denying abortions to women who fear they might contract Zika not only puts them at risk for carrying to term a child who they do not have the resources to care for, but also that these pregnancies put undue mental strain on the woman. A woman who is pregnant in Latin America right now must fear every mosquito bite and every slight sign of an illness – Zika produces very mild symptoms in most people, and no symptoms in some.
In Brazil, abortion activists are trying to argue their case based on a past Supreme Court ruling. Historically in Brazil, the only cases in which abortion was permissible were when the life of the mother is threatened, or when the mother was raped. In 2012 the Court added a third exception: women can have an abortion if their fetus is shown to suffer from anencephaly. An anencephalic fetus develops with a brain and will die immediately after birth. Although Zika causes a malformation of the brain, fetuses with microcephaly are viable. Most people with microcephaly suffer significant cognitive impairment, although a few are virtually unaffected.
Debora Diniz, feminist activist and law professor at the University of Brasilia, pleads with the government to understand that right now campaigners are only demanding, “the right to abortion in the case of Zika infection during the epidemic. It is not an abortion in the case of fetal malformation. It is the right to abortion in case of being infected by the Zika virus, suffering mental stress because you have this horrible situation and so few answers on how to plan and have a safe pregnancy.”
In the worst situation are El Salvadoran women. In El Salvador abortions are illegal, even if the pregnancy is life threatening to the mother. The current punishment for causing or consenting to an abortion is 2-8 years in prison. However the legislature is now working on a bill that would increase the sentence to 30-50 years. Women who miscarry are often suspected of attempting an illicit abortion and are arrested and punished. El Salvador is one of the poorest countries in Latin America and most women do not have access to birth control or mosquito repellent, or even information about the Zika virus. All they have are terrifying rumors about infants with miniscule heads.
The UN High Commissioner has issued a statement urging countries affected by the Zika virus to increase access to birth control and abortions, arguing that failing to do so is a violation of women’s human rights.
Charles Abbott, the Latin America and Caribbean legal advisor to the Center for Reproductive Rights argues, “Women cannot solely bear the burden of curbing the Zika virus. We agree with the [High Commissioner] that these governments must fulfill their international human rights obligations and cannot shirk that responsibility or pass it off to women. This includes adopting laws and policies to respect and protect women’s reproductive rights.”
Women in Latin America face a long and bitter struggle to secure their abortion rights in Zika affected areas. Right now women are being denied the right to have a pregnancy that they can plan safely; there are few definite statements about Zika from the medical community, and pregnant women simply do not know how to protect themselves and their fetuses. Governments need to put aside the usual moral questions about abortion for another day, and recognize the catastrophe unfolding in their countries. Now more than ever, women need the right to choose.