Across Latin America, calls to loosen some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world in the face of the Zika virus outbreak are gaining momentum, but encountering strong and entrenched opposition.
In El Salvador, where abortions are banned under any circumstance, the health minister has argued for a revision of the law because of the dangers the virus poses to fetal development.
In Colombia, an organized movement to lift restrictions on abortion has gained allies in the government but has run into determined opposition from religious authorities. The same is happening in Brazil — and some doctors say that as a consequence illegal, back-alley abortions are on the rise.
Nearly everywhere in Latin America, including in those countries hit hardest by Zika, women who wish to terminate their pregnancies have few legal options. But as U.N. health officials have projected as many as 4 million infections in the Americas this year, activists are pressing lawmakers to act as swiftly as possible to ease rigid restrictions.
Several governments in Latin American nations have responded to the crisis by urging women to postpone pregnancy. But the availability of contraceptives is limited, especially in rural Latin America, and church authorities in the heavily Roman Catholic region oppose their use.
“If I were a woman, had just got pregnant and discovered that I had been infected by the Zika virus, I would not hesitate an instant to abort the gestation,” wrote columnist Hélio Schwartsman in the daily newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo. Each mother should be able to follow her own instincts, he said.
Those calls have been echoed in El Salvador and Colombia and by others here in Brazil, the center of the outbreak, where the government estimates that as many as 1.5 million people may have caught Zika. It is spread mostly by infected mosquitoes, but it also can be transmitted through sexual contact. Researchers also recently detected “active” Zika cells in saliva and urine.
Brazil’s government blames the virus for a sharp increase in reports of children born with undersize heads, a condition known as microcephaly, but doctors say they’re only beginning to understand the dangers posed by Zika to neurological development.
Uruguay and Cuba are the only nations in Latin America where abortion is legal and widely available. Other countries allow it in cases of rape, incest or when a mother’s life is in danger.
In Chile, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and El Salvador, the procedure is banned completely. All four have reported cases of Zika, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
SOURCE: Dom Phillips, Nick Miroff and Julia Symmes Cobb
The Washington Post