As world newspapers are creating a climate of fear surrounding the Zika virus, they are ignoring a much larger issue. Zika, although in the early stages of research, has been linked to microcephaly. This condition causes a smaller than average head size in infants, which is often caused by abnormal brain development. As more and more cases of the virus are being linked to this condition, pregnant women in the area seek to protect themselves and their infants. However, the area effected by Zika (Latin America and the Caribbean) also happens to be under the world’s strictest abortion laws.
Abortion is fully criminalized in El Salvador, Haiti, Chile, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Suriname. In El Salvador alone, there have been 6,000 thousand suspected cases of Zika. El Salvador’s current action plan for dealing with risk of microcephaly is unrealistic- asking women not to get pregnant until 2018. Other countries, such as Jamaica, have followed suit, offering not birth control or reproductive rights, but advice to avoid pregnancy until the Zika crisis is over.
However, the Zika virus does bring to light a very important issue outside of disease control. Latin America has the highest unsafe abortion rate in the world. Women, often barred from physician’s help, are forced to take illegal and dangerous channels to terminate unwanted pregnancies. 13% of all maternal deaths in Latin America can be attributed to abortions, and there are also legal consequences. In Brazil, a woman can face up to three years in prison. In a region where 58% of pregnancies are unintended, the lack of reproductive rights can have severe consequences for the large majority of the population.
This issue is only now resurfacing, in the wake of a global Zika crisis. Major news outlets such as the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and Newsweek have covered the story, using the lens of abortions being necessitated by Zika. However, what is underreported is what happens after the virus is out of the public spotlight. One report from The Conversation states that “women need access to safe legal abortion whether they are living in are are where Zika is active or not”. Zika may be the impetus of change, but long term effectiveness will be driven by acting for equality, not out of fear.
Ser, Kuang. “Thanks to Zika, Now We Know Latin America Has the Toughest Abortion Problem in the World.” PRI 27 Feb. 2016, http://www.pri.org/stories/2016-02-27/thanks-zika-now-we-know-latin-america-has-toughest-abortion-policies-world.
Stern, Alexandra. “Zika and Abortion: Will the Virus Prompt Latin America to Rethink Abortion and Birth Control.” The Conversation 16 Mar. 2016, https://theconversation.com/zika-and-abortion-will-the-virus-prompt-latin-america-to-rethink-abortion-and-birth-control-55200
Zhang, Sarah. “Zika Virus May Push South America to Loosen Abortion Bans.” Wired 28 Jan. 2016: http://www.wired.com/2016/01/abortion-and-zika-south-america/
Student Researcher: Hayler Sears (University of Vermont)
Faculty Evaluator: Rob Williams (University of Vermont)