Abortion Rights Blog

The national pro-choice campaign

Could the Zika outbreak lead to reform in abortion laws?

The Zika virus, spreading through Latin America and now parts of North America, had managed to open dialogue on women’s reproductive health. The mosquito-borne virus causes birth defects.

News reports state that more than 2100 pregnant women in Columbia are infected with the virus. Columbia is the only Latin American countries that permit abortions in the case of a medical anomaly in the foetus. For women in the rest of Latin America, their options are quite simply spelt out – have a baby with stunted brain growth, or undergo an unsafe abortion with the risk of a prison sentence.

The way the government is handling the situation is also unintelligent – asking women to plan their pregnancies, without proper reproductive health facilities in place doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. In El Salvador, the pill is a prescription drug and is only sold in selected locations. This makes is accessible only to an economically privileged part of the population. Similarly, condoms are not a subsidized product either. So women living in poverty lack access to any modern method of contraceptive.

An Amnesty International report suggests that teenage pregnancy is a huge issue in El Salvador. Considering the high rates of sexual crime in the area (in 2013, 1346 women and girls reported being raped), the correlation is evident. How, then, does the government expect women to postpone their pregnancies until after 2018?

Sex education is schools continue to focus on abstinence and does not provide tools to young adults to practise safe sex. Discussions on sex are discouraged with the view that talking about it will encourage youth to have sex.

The Zika virus continues to spread and women in El Salvador continue to be denied their right to abortion. Pregnant women barely have viable options, and the rest continue to exist in a system where they cannot practise choice. Unless the government begins to trust women to make decisions about their own bodies, change is unlikely.

The hope is that the reopened debate, coupled with pressure on these governments to review their laws can likely cause some movement in the right direction. Even if one country amends their law that is a lot of women saved. Additionally, one country could set a precedent for the others. What is unfortunate is that it takes the threat of a mosquito for us to talk about women’s health.

Salonie Muralidhara