The Zika virus epidemic plaguing much of South America has sparked international debate over reproductive health rights in Brazil. In April, scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that Zika virus is a cause of microcephaly and other severe fetal brain defects (1). This epidemic has caused many women to seek alternative reproductive choices, including abortion. However under Brazilian law, abortions are illegal unless the woman's life is at risk, she was raped, or the fetus has anencephaly –– a rare condition in which part of the brain or skull is missing (2). There is no exception for microcephaly or other developmental defects caused by Zika (3). The Brazilian government’s refusal to decriminalize abortions and provide safe healthcare for women is a violation of international human rights standards.
Strict anti-abortion laws force women to resort to unsafe and illegal abortions. There are as many as 900,000 illegal abortions in Brazil each year (4). These laws particularly burden low-income women who do not have the means to find a person qualified to assist with their needs related to reproductive health. Women who cannot afford black market abortion pills, which carry the added risk of being counterfeit, may resort to drinking unsafe chemicals, inserting sharp objects into the uterus, and even taking their own lives (5). The number of women who sought medical attention for botched abortions last year was greater than the number of women who received legal abortions by nearly 100 to 1 (6). Additionally, after the connection between Zika and birth defects made headlines, there was a spike in demand for illegal abortion pills like misoprostol, according to Women on Web, which provides medication for women who are seeking an abortion in countries where it is banned (7). In December, Brazilian Customs seized over 26,000 abortion pills coming into the country (8).
A study by the Guttmacher Institute and the World Health Organization found that abortion is just as prevalent in countries where it is prohibited as it is in countries where abortion is legal (9). Therefore, making abortion illegal is not going to decrease the number of abortions that occur. Since illegal abortions are often dangerous to a woman’s health, having access to safe and legal abortions can prevent unnecessary death or suffering. Highly restrictive abortion laws violate women's human rights based on agreements made at the UN International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (10).
Adding to the problem, Zika detection and diagnosis is also expensive. To identify if you have Zika, the cost in private labs is close to 1000 reais (just over 250 USD)–– a price that the majority of women cannot afford (11). Additional financial strains are placed on women because many are abandoned by their partners once they get pregnant or after the baby is born. Some well-off Brazilian women are able to afford relocating to other regions in order to give birth to a healthy child. One woman, Brazilian radiologist Juliana Salviano, and her husband might spend around $15,000 on rent and other expenses while she stays temporarily in South Florida during her baby’s gestation (12). Unfortunately, the majority of women cannot afford to just leave Brazil.
Former Brazilian Health Minister José Gomes Temporão explained that Brazilian women are prisoners of laws that are created and approved by men (13). A country where conservative religious influence is strong, sexual and reproductive health services are criminalized or unavailable. Stigmatization and lack of knowledge about reproductive health choices has led to high rates of teenage pregnancies region-wide. For example, 38 percent of girls and women in the region get pregnant before the age of 20 (14). UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein argued that laws and policies that restrict access to sexual and reproductive health services must be repealed, and that women must have the information, support, and services they need to exercise their right to determine whether and when they become pregnant (15).
Efforts made by South American governments to deal with this problem have been inadequate. In December, a high-ranking Brazilian health official advised women to postpone getting pregnant because of the Zika outbreak (16). Other countries in Latin America have also issued similar warnings, such as El Salvador, which advised women not to get pregnant until 2018 (17). In an environment where sexual violence is so common, women cannot control when or under what circumstances they get pregnant. Telling women to just avoid pregnancy is oversimplifying the problem and ignoring key issues, including men’s failure to honor the rights of women and girls.
Conservative governments and institutions have been exercising their influence to counter progress, including religious leaders who are vowing to resist any effort to ease Brazil’s abortion laws (18). In addition, politicians in Brazil are drafting plans to make abortion laws even more harsh, with jail terms of 4.5 years for women who abort fetuses with microcephaly (19). Alvaro Ciarlini, a judge and constitutional law expert, said the chances of changing Brazil’s abortion laws are remote (20). Ciarlini argued that the Supreme Court made this clear in its 2012 decision when it ruled that abortion was permissible only when it was certain the mother’s life was endangered or the fetus would be stillborn, rather than disabled or deformed (21).
Despite this, Judge Coelho de Alcantara of Brazil went against the country’s ban on abortion by announcing he will allow women to end a pregnancy in cases of microcephaly (22). Having public officials come out in support of abortion rights is not enough, if the conversation around the issue is to be reshaped. In order to win the long fight for reproductive health rights, women need to be educated on what their rights are and advocate for them. Reproductive health services need to be destigmatized, and sexual education needs to be taught in schools. If abortion rights are ever going to be respected in Brazil, there needs to be a continuous fight for policy change and legislation that uphold the health rights of women. The Zika epidemic is already terrifying enough for Brazilian women, and their lack of health rights only worsens the situation.
(1) "CDC Concludes Zika Causes Microcephaly and Other Birth Defects." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 13 Apr. 2016. Web. 12 Aug. 2016.
(2) Mcdonald, Brent. "Brazil’s Abortion Restrictions Compound Challenge of Zika Virus." The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 18 May 2016. Web. 12 Aug. 2016.
(10) "Abortion - A Matter of Human Rights and Social Justice." Women on Web. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Aug. 2016.
(11) "Is Zika a Tipping Point in the Fight for Reproductive Rights in Latin America?" Global Fund for Women. N.p., 2016. Web. 11 Aug. 2016
(12) Johnson, Reed. "In Brazil, Zika Fuels Abortion Debate." The Wall Street Journal. News Corp, 8 Mar. 2016. Web. 11 Aug. 2016.
(14) "Is Zika a Tipping Point in the Fight for Reproductive Rights in Latin America?" Global Fund for Women. N.p., 2016. Web. 11 Aug. 2016
(15) "Upholding Women's Human Rights Essential to Zika Response." OHCHR. United Nations, 5 Feb. 2015. Web. 11 Aug. 2016.
(16) Mcdonald, Brent. "Brazil’s Abortion Restrictions Compound Challenge of Zika Virus." The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 18 May 2016. Web. 12 Aug. 2016.
(18) "Is Zika a Tipping Point in the Fight for Reproductive Rights in Latin America?" Global Fund for Women. N.p., 2016. Web. 11 Aug. 2016
(20) Johnson, Reed. "In Brazil, Zika Fuels Abortion Debate." The Wall Street Journal. News Corp, 8 Mar.
2016. Web. 11 Aug. 2016.
(22) "Is Zika a Tipping Point in the Fight for Reproductive Rights in Latin America?" Global Fund for Women. N.p., 2016. Web. 11 Aug. 2016.
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Erin is from Chicago, a junior at USC and plans on graduating in May 2018. She is a political science major with minors in psychology and business law, currently studying abroad at the University of Cape Town.