The Zika virus reignites the abortion debate in Brazil, as a group of local lawyers, activists and scientists decided to launch a petition to ask the country’s supreme court to allow abortions for women who have contracted the virus.
On February 1st the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared a state of global emergency as there is suspicion of a strong relationship between Zika infection and the drastic increase of microcephaly cases (an abnormally small head). Indeed, while in Brazil there were only 147 babies born with this malformation in 2014, last year around 4,000 were counted.
Spreading fast in Latin America since May 2015, the Zika virus is transmitted by infected mosquitos and is currently incurable. Pregnant women are the most exposed to the virus since it can seriously affect their baby born with a small head, intellectual disabilities, vision problems or development delay. The handicap can even be deadly if the brain is so underdeveloped that it cannot regulate the functions vital to life. Therefore, several Latin American and Caribbean countries advised women to postpone pregnancy, for up to two years, until the epidemic has been dealt with.
However, women’s rights campaigners criticised the recommendations, saying women in the region often have little choice about becoming pregnant.
“It’s incredibly naive for a government to ask women to postpone getting pregnant in a context such as Colombia, where more than 50% of pregnancies are unplanned and across the region where sexual violence is prevalent,”
said Monica Roa, a member of Women’s Link Worldwide group.
Moreover, abortion and contraception are not widely available in the region. In Brazil and Colombia for instance abortions are illegal except in health emergencies, cases of rape or the fatal foetal abnormality called anencephaly. In El Salvador, Chile, Nicaragua, Honduras, and the Dominican Republic, abortion is completely illegal and women face a jail term for having their pregnancies terminated in any circumstances. Where Zika cases have been confirmed in the region, only Guyana and French Guiana permit abortion without restriction.
Concerning contraception, it is in short supply in some parts of the region, especially in rural areas. The UN reported that only 52% women in the region have access to contraceptives. Society in Latin America continues to be extremely divided between rich women who can afford contraception or travels to abort and poor women who cannot afford it.
“Poor women and women in rural areas are more susceptible to infection and less likely to have access to sexuality education and contraception.”
said Tewodros Melesse, director general of the International Planned Parenthood Federation.
The group behind the Brazilian petition for the right to abort in the case of Zika contamination intends to deliver it to the supreme court in two months’ time. There is chance the group could obtain an exception since they already won the exception for anencephaly in 2012.
Because Latin America is largely Catholic, The BBC asked the Vatican press office whether teaching would be amended on contraception or abortion. A spokesperson said: “For the moment there is no comment about this.”