Seemingly overnight, a virus once previously thought to be mild has received national attention and elicited warnings from international organizations. Spreading now across more than two dozen countries, the Zika virus was once considered to be relatively innocuous compared to a similar mosquito-borne disease, dengue fever. The dengue virus frequently causes severe fever, joint pain, and rashes and can even lead to hemorrhaging, while the Zika virus may be asymptomatic or cause only a mild fever and rash. But now Zika virus infections in pregnant women have been linked to serious birth defects in newborns across South America. In response, governments are urging women to avoid pregnancy. However, many countries in South America where the virus has been detected have laws that are heavily influenced by the Catholic Church, and as a result, they severely limit women’s access to contraception and abortion.
The Zika virus was previously only found in parts of equatorial Asia and Africa and was not considered a major public health concern. After infection, usually caused by a bite from a mosquito carrying the virus, individuals develop immunity to the virus. However Zika is relatively new to the Caribbean and South America, meaning that women who are pregnant lack this immunity and can become infected and pass the virus on to their unborn children. Health officials in Brazil and other countries in South America are linking this infection to a dramatic spike in the number of infants born with microcephaly, a serious birth defect. In the past four months, Brazil has 4,000 reported cases of infants born with microcephaly, compared to previous reports of only 150 cases of the birth defect per year. While definitive proof connecting Zika virus infections to microcephaly has yet to be found, the link between the two is strong enough that the World Health Organization has declared the Zika virus to be an international health emergency, and the governments of several countries are urging women to delay pregnancy until doctors better understand the virus and its relationship to microcephaly.
Microcephaly, according to the Mayo Clinic’s website, is a birth defect in which an infant has an unusually small head, related to abnormal brain development in the womb. It’s difficult to detect in a pregnancy before the third trimester, and it’s often associated with severe developmental delays in speech and movement, with mental retardation, seizures, and difficulties with coordination and balance. Children born with microcephaly frequently die while still very young, and those who do survive past infancy often suffer from severe disabilities for the rest of their lives and require intensive care. An NPR report discusses the difficulties faced by mothers in Brazil who became infected with the Zika virus and now must care for their developmentally impaired children. These women receive little to no assistance from the Brazilian healthcare system, which is ill-equipped to deal with the sudden jump in the number of microcephalic children and their need for intensive care. One woman told NPR that she felt as though her family had been “abandoned by the state.”
Given the risks to women who may contract the Zika virus, the governments of Ecuador, El Salvador, Colombia, and Jamaica are encouraging women to avoid pregnancy. The government of El Salvador has even gone so far as to warn women not to conceive for two years. However, these warnings haven’t been supported by programs to increase the availability of contraception to women who are at risk for contracting the virus. In fact, Raw Story reports that only 52 percent of women in Latin America have access to birth control. Women in poverty and in rural areas in particular are at a higher risk of being bitten by mosquitos carrying the virus, and they are also less likely to have access to contraception. Access to condoms can also slow the spread of the virus, since there is evidence that it can be transmitted to women through an infected partner’s sperm.
Because contraception is inaccessible to more than half of women in South America, the only other options available to control pregnancy are abstinence and abortion. Abstinence, however, is an unrealistic option for many women and practicing it denies them full expression of their sexuality and thus also their humanity.
Requiring abstinence to prevent pregnancy in the face of inadequate contraception access also does nothing for women who conceive as a result of rape. The only other option is abortion. Unfortunately, due to the heavy influence of the Catholic Church, many South American countries severely restrict abortion or even ban it completely. According to the Guttmacher Institute, Chile, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Suriname prohibit abortion with no explicit exceptions even for the life and health of the woman. Many other countries in South America and the Caribbean only allow women to have abortions under the most dire of circumstances: only if the mother’s life, health, or mental wellbeing would be severely impaired by carrying the pregnancy to term. Only Cuba, Guyana, Puerto Rico, and Uruguay permit women to have abortions without restricting their reasons for doing so. Even in countries like Colombia, where women infected with the Zika virus could legally obtain an abortion, these strict laws create confusion surrounding the circumstances under which women can have access to abortions.
As a result of the Zika virus, women in South America and the Caribbean are being put in an impossible position. They are being told to delay pregnancy, but they are also denied contraception and legal abortion—the most effective means by which they can prevent pregnancy. Women who do contract the virus during pregnancy have no other option than to carry their pregnancies to term and attempt to raise their severely impaired children without adequate aid or assistance from government health services. No vaccine exists for the virus, and though an Indian biotech company is working to develop one, it won’t be ready for use until it undergoes clinical trials, a process that could take several years. In the meantime, countless women who become pregnant while at risk for contracting the virus and who lack the means to care for a developmentally impaired child may seek illegal abortions, which are often risky and can even be fatal. Despite these extreme circumstances, the Guardian reports that the Catholic Church shows no sign in relenting on its firm stance against contraception and abortion, indicating that many South American countries will be unlikely to compassionately change their laws to accommodate women’s needs.
The abortion restrictions placed upon women in South American countries influenced by the Catholic Church reflect the cruelty of prioritizing dogma over human needs. They also demonstrate the dangers of mixing religious beliefs with what should be a secular state. Women who are unlucky enough to be bitten by a mosquito carrying the Zika virus don’t deserve to be forced to raise developmentally disabled children if they don’t want to. What’s needed in discussions surrounding abortion in South America, as well as in the United States, is respect for the lives and decisions of women placed in difficult circumstances. What’s needed in South America is not religious intrusion into women’s lives but a humanist ethic of empathy that empowers women to take control of their own reproductive health and lives.