SEATTLE — Zika is an emerging mosquito-borne virus spreading rapidly across the Americas, which has been associated with a fetal neurological disorder named microcephaly. Consequently, a few Latin American countries have allowed Zika-infected pregnant women to access abortion, generating controversy about reproductive rights in a predominantly Catholic region.
People with microcephaly are born with underdeveloped brains and abnormally small heads. As the Huffington Post reported last week, “babies linked to this disease may suffer from additional ailments, including convulsions, impaired vision and hearing, deformed limbs and severe breathing problems.”
The governments of certain Latin American countries have advised females to simply not get pregnant until further notice. Colombia encouraged women to delay their pregnancies six to eight months. El Salvador, where abortion is completely outlawed, has recommended females to abstain from pregnancy as far as 2018.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights emphasized that “the advice of some governments to women to delay getting pregnant, ignores the reality that many women and girls simply cannot exercise control over whether or when or under what circumstances they become pregnant, especially in an environment where sexual violence is so common.”
The U.N.’s announcement correlates with Brazil’s decision to allow women to end their pregnancy in cases of microcephaly.
“Abortions are currently outlawed in Brazil, except for cases of rape, anencephaly (a more extreme version of microcephaly, where a baby often dies in infancy), or when the mother’s life is in danger. Some conservative lawmakers have even pushed to further regulate these exceptions,” said ThinkProgress.
The discussion of what to do about Zika-infected pregnant women is underway in the Latin American countries, specifically because these are very conservative and religious countries that usually suppress any efforts to lift abortion bans.
The United Nations aims to loosen these barriers for Zika-infected pregnant women to end pregnancies in cases of microcephaly.
“Health services must be delivered in a way that ensures a woman’s fully informed consent, respects her dignity, guarantees her privacy, and is responsive to her needs and perspectives,” the commissioner concluded. “Laws and policies that restrict her access to these services must be urgently reviewed in line with human rights obligations in order to ensure the right to health for all in practice,” said the U.N.