Zika’s potential impact on abortion legislation in Latin America

The Zika virus has been a hot topic in the news, with reactions varying from panic to dismissal. The biggest concern surrounding the disease is the potential for severe birth defects in children born to women who were infected while pregnant, which has stirred up the always-controversial topics of reproductive rights and decisions.

Virus

Like dengue and chikungunya, Zika is spread through mosquito bites. The virus symptoms themselves are surprisingly mild. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that common symptoms are fever, rash, joint pain, and red eyes lasting up to a week. Only about one in five people who are infected with the virus actually develop Zika, and those that do are simply encouraged to get rest, take acetaminophen, and drink fluids.

Where is it?

Zika outbreaks were noted in Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands prior to 2015. The virus was first identified in Brazil in May 2015, and has been reported in many other South American countries. Although no locally transmitted cases have been noted in the U.S., it has been brought into the country by those infected elsewhere. Local cases in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Island, and American Samoa have been detected.

The particular species of mosquito known to carry Zika, Aedes aegypti, is not as prevalent in the U.S. as more southern countries because it prefers tropical and sub-tropical climates. However, some studies have found that the Aedes is common in Louisiana, Florida, some areas of Texas, and is sometimes seen as far north as New York in the summer.

Pregnancy

The major discussion surrounding Zika has stemmed from reports of a serious birth defect and “other poor pregnancy outcomes” in babies born to mothers who were infected while pregnant. Microcephaly, a condition in which a baby’s head size is significantly reduced, has been linked to the virus. According to the Mayo Clinic, microcephaly usually causes the brain to develop abnormally or fail to grow as expected, often causing developmental delays. As a result of these concerns, the CDC and other agencies recommend that women who are pregnant avoid traveling to areas where Zika is known. The first confirmed pregnancy case in Europe was recently found in Spain, where a woman recently returned from Colombia.

Controversy

The talk of Zika and potential serious birth defects has brought up a discussion regarding abortion laws, especially in heavily religious countries like Brazil where abortion is illegal in most cases. According to the New York Times, a case is already being prepared to fight for pregnant women to have the option for an abortion when microcephaly is discovered, and a judge has already expressed support for that side of the issue. Other groups are speaking up about keeping the restrictions as they currently are, or making abortions still harder to obtain. Some are recalling the legal battles in the U.S. surrounding abortions when it was discovered that contracting rubella during pregnancy would result in “damaged children”—an article published in the Wall Street Journal in 1966 sounds eerily similar to the discussion today. The Therapeutic Abortion Act, enacted during the rubella scares before a vaccine was developed, made California the first state to legalize abortion, with restrictions.

Those pushing for easier access to abortions note that contraception is particularly hard to obtain in Latin America. In addition, the culture often allows men to call the shots on how large a family becomes. Even though El Salvador’s government advised women to postpone pregnancy for two years, those studying family planning in the reason state that such actions are simply not feasible for many women—especially considering that clinics in five countries in the region exhausted their contraceptive supplies in 2015. Maternity and labor and delivery care are also hard to come by especially for the poor, resulting in many women giving birth outside of a medical facility. Sources have reported that millions of women have sought unsafe abortions in the region, often resulting in further health issues.