The threat the Zika virus may pose to fetal development is great enough that some countries affected by the outbreak have warned women not have children for the next two years.
But some of the governments raising concerns offer few options for the women who may already be pregnant and become infected with the mosquito-borne illness, thanks to“draconian” laws that forbid or greatly restrict abortion.
It’s all very “hypocritical” and “tragic” for the women in these countries, says Dr. Joyce Arthur, the executive director of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada.
“They put women in this incredible Catch-22,” she says. “They’re not supposed to get pregnant, they’re not supposed to have abortions, they can’t avoid getting pregnant because they can’t get contraception and they’re going to get thrown in jail or die from [an] unsafe abortion if they try to terminate the pregnancy.”
El Salvador, Colombia, Honduras and Brazil — where there have been more than 4,000 cases of babies born with microcephaly suspected of being linked to Zika virus infection — are among 22 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean where abortion is either banned or where there are very few situations in which terminating a pregnancy is allowed.
Guyana, French Guiana and Uruguay are the only countries where abortion is generally legal, although Uruguay has not documented transmission of the Zika virus.
The World Health Organization (WHO) reported 95 per cent of the more than four million abortions performed in Latin America were unsafe, leading to as many as 900 deaths (according to 2008 numbers) in Central and South America.
In Brazil, unsafe abortions are the “fifth-leading cause of maternal mortality,” according to the Study Group on Abortion.
There are hopes international pressure could lead to some progress — in Brazil, at least.
A judge in the central Brazilian city of Goiás said last week he may consider authorizing abortions “in the case of a pregnancy with microcephaly and Zika,” but it would have to be on a case-by-case basis and with medical proof that the baby would not be born alive.
A Dutch group known as Women on the Web is offering to provide the abortion pill to women who are early in their pregnancy (less than nine weeks) and infected with Zika, but the Brazilian government actually stops the packages from being delivered. The organization says it is demanding the government “suspend the interception of packages with medical abortions at least for the duration of the Zika epidemic.”
Arthur says it should ultimately be up to the woman to decide.
“I think what’s going to happen here is that the women are going to resort to unsafe abortions even more because they’re going to get desperate… and the government is going to turn a blind eye.”
It’s not just a matter of an unwanted pregnancy or not wanting to raise a child affected be a deformity or developmental issue, possibly brought on by contracting the Zika virus during a pregnancy.
Arthur says women in poorer areas, which have been particularly affected by the outbreak, often don’t have the means or support to raise a child with a disability, adding that many pregnancies aren’t planned to begin with because there’s no access to contraception.
Preventing a pregnancy is one thing, but there is now some concern about the possibility of the virus being transmitted sexually.
In the U.S., where health officials are confirmed a case of a patient contracting the virus through sex with a partner who got infected during a trip to Venezuela, the Centers for Disease Control is people who have travelled to Zika-affected areas and may have been exposed to the virus to use condoms for 28 days after returning from a destination where Zika is prevalent or up to six months after being infected by the virus.
Other countries, including the U.K. and Ireland, had previously issued advisories about condom use.
Health officials in Latin America, however, aren’t making the same proclamations about safe sex, even though they’re telling women not to get pregnant.
“The government is not issuing any recommendation for the men to use condoms, which is very unfair,” Paula Avila-Gullen, the Latin America and Caribbean advocacy adviser for the Center for Reproductive Rights, told TIME. “That makes the women responsible for everything.”
The CDC and the World Health Organization, however, warn the best way to avoid becoming infected with the Zika virus is to take measures to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes.