Zika Sparks South American Abortion Debate

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Zika VirusOne of the recent consequences of the outbreak of the Zika virus across South America is the intensification of debates over reproductive rights among deeply conservative countries (particularly where the Roman Catholic Church still holds immense sway).

Without a targeted treatment or vaccine, there are minimal methods available for pregnant women to avoid contracting Zika, which is suspected of being responsible for the spike in microcephaly cases—a birth defect where infants are born with shrunken heads and brains. Right now, the best that government officials can do is simply advise women not to get pregnant.

The advice is met skeptically, to say the least. Roughly 60% of all pregnancies within Latin America are unplanned and contraception and sexual education is limited. Abortion is heavily restricted and depending on the country, can earn a woman up to 50 years in prison. Against the backdrop of the Zika virus, however, some groups are hoping to expand abortion rights or at least force a serious debate on the matter.

It is a parallel situation to the 1960’s rubella scare in the U.S. Back then, a rubella epidemic was causing a surge in birth defects at a time when abortion was primarily seen as the recourse of the promiscuous poor. The upswing in deformities resulted in many middle-class women seeking terminations—with their doctor’s consent, no less. This change resulted in the passing of laws that allowed for abortions in cases of fetal deformities. The hope is that a similar movement will be triggered amidst South American countries as they try to grapple with their own wave of birth defects.

The flip side is that microcephaly has degrees of severity, although most of the Zika-linked cases appear to be of the more advanced degree where the brain—normally filled with ridges—ends up being smooth. This results in children who face intense developmental deficiencies that can leave them unable to speak, face severe learning or mental deficiencies, or be plagued by seizures. However, there are also those with microcephaly who are able to develop fine and leave regular lives. Some of these individuals have begun speaking out at those who want to see abortion expanded and want pregnant women to make a decision based on a proper understanding of microcephaly rather than fear.

Meanwhile, U.S. President Barack Obama recently called for more pressing action to be taken against the Zika virus, including faster access to treatments and vaccines.

Sources for Today’s Article:
Jasmine G., “Zika Virus Isn’t The First Disease To Spark A Debate About Abortion,” NPR, January 31, 2016.