Abortion advocates are using the Zika virus to pressure Latin American governments to expand access to abortion. The Zika virus is transmitted to humans bitten by infected Aedes aegypti mosquitoes residing in tropical areas. About one in five infected individuals experience mild symptoms of fever, rash, joint pain, and red eyes for up to a week.
The virus was first detected in rhesus monkeys in Uganda and Tanzania in 1947. Outbreaks in humans have since been found in tropical Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands. In 2013-2014, there were 388 human cases in French Polynesia. In May 2015, the first confirmed Zika infection was detected in Brazil. The virus was soon discovered in other parts of Central and South America. The World Health Organization is projecting that 4 million people may be infected by the end of 2016.
The most serious suspected complications of Zika include microcephaly in babies of infected mothers as well as Guillain-Barré syndrome (a disorder where a person’s own immune system damages nerve cells, leading to paralysis). On Feb. 1, the World Health Organization declared the infection to be a public health emergency due to these findings.
The link with microcephaly is leading to a push to expand abortion in Latin American countries, many of which have strong sanctions against abortion. Brazil, for instance, bans abortion except in cases of rape, anencephaly, and danger to the mother’s life. El Salvador has a complete ban on abortion.
On Feb. 5, UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein urged Latin American nations to expand abortion access. “Laws and policies that restrict (women’s) 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,” he said.
On Feb. 1, Women on Web, a Canadian-based organization providing drugs in countries with restrictions on abortion, stated that it would send free abortion drugs to women with Zika disease.
In Brasilia, a group of lawyers, activists, and scientists (including the Institute of Bioethics, Human Rights, and Gender, a partner of the Women’s Health Coalition based in New York City) is preparing to petition the Supreme Court to permit the procedure in cases of microcephaly. This was the same group that won the exception for anencephaly in 2012. Judge Jesseir Coelho de Alcantara in central Brazil said he would let women legally abort children with microcephaly.
In El Salvador, the Center for Reproductive Rights has also started an online petition to the El Salvador government to allow women with the Zika virus to have abortions. El Salvadoran officials had already recommended that women postpone pregnancy for two years.
According to a blog by Jonathan Abbamonte of the Population Research Institute, microcephaly cannot usually be detected by ultrasound until late into the second trimester, meaning that abortion would involve “brutal and controversial … procedures that involve dismemberment, saline, or lethal injections.” As well, “allowing abortion for any suspected cases of Zika infection would essentially make abortion available on-demand as there would be no means of verification,” and there have been cases where children born with microcephaly have not had any intellectual disabilities at all. “Focusing on harmful abortion policies will only take attention away from real and tangible solutions that will have an effect on the ground” such as vaccine development and infection prevention measures.
The evidence that Zika virus leads to microcephaly, however, is not conclusive. Brazil’s Ministry of Health said that there were 4,783 reported cases of microcephaly since last October, with only 404 confirmed has having microcephaly and 17 of them testing positive for the Zika viruses (with only 150 cases of microcephaly prior to the outbreak). According to the New York Times, though, the Brazilian government and researchers state that their tests are not good at detecting the presence of the virus. In Columbia, however, according to President Juan Manuel Santos on Feb. 6, despite 3,177 pregnant women being infected with Zika virus, there have been no babies with microcephaly thus far. Colombian Health Minister Alejandro Gavira, however, said that the country’s abortion law would already permit abortions for women infected with Zika because “fetal malformation” is one of three exceptions for abortion in the South American nation.
The consequences of the Zika virus are also reaching Canada. A pregnant Toronto woman who was in Brazil in December went before the media to demand access to a blood test for the Zika virus to decide whether she should abort her baby. Although past interim guidelines from British and American obstetricians’ colleges only recommended testing if the woman has developed symptoms, the Public Health Agency of Canada has since issued guidelines on Feb. 9 that allows for testing of asymptomatic pregnant travellers to an area at risk of Zika. The woman said she wanted to know whether or not her preborn child had microcephaly because she wanted to have an abortion if there was any chance her child was malformed.