The Zika Virus Could Force Women To Have Unsafe Abortions

The disease, which is linked to severe birth defects, has spread to countries where abortion is illegal.

01/26/2016 11:58 am ET

BALI, Indonesia -- As the Zika virus continues to cause severe birth deformities in babies whose mothers contract it throughout the Americas, El Salvador has advised women to avoid becoming pregnant for a full two years until the epidemic is eradicated. But women who are already pregnant with the disease are left with few options in a country where abortion is criminalized without exceptions.

The virus, which the Aedes aegypti mosquito transmits, is linked to the condition microcephaly, which causes babies to be born with abnormally small heads and severe developmental delays. Since Brazil confirmed the first case in May 2015, 21 other countries throughout South, Central and North America, including the United States, have since reported occurrences. Nearly 4,000 children have been born with microcephaly in the areas affected. 

El Savador's government advised women on Monday to delay getting pregnant until 2018 -- an unprecedented recommendation -- while Colombia, Jamaica and Ecuador called for shorter delays. 

The problem in El Salvador's case is that women who are already pregnant and contract the virus are still subject to the nation's complete ban on abortion, which has already put dozens of women behind bars for murder. Health workers worry the law could drive many desperate women infected with Zika to seek dangerous, back-alley procedures. 

"Imagine you're pregnant already, and then you discover you have this virus, and then you discover that this virus causes this condition in the fetus," said Anu Kumar, executive vice president of the global abortion rights non-profit IPAS. "Then you're faced with the decision of, what do you want to do with this?" 

Kumar, speaking at the International Conference on Family Planning in Bali, Indonesia, said the Zika situation highlights the public health problems that severely restrictive abortion laws cause. An estimated 47,000 women a year die from unsafe abortion complications.  

"That's exactly why these laws should be liberalized," she said, "because unsafe abortions lead to injury, lead to death, lead to women having unspeakable horror inflicted on them. And why, when we have the technology to do this safely?" 

The Center for Reproductive Rights has been lobbying El Salvador's government to change its abortion policy urgently in response to the virus. But a spokesperson for the group said the government has not responded to its petition, nor has it made an effort to increase family planning services to the couples who are being told to avoid pregnancy. 

"The government is washing their hands of responsibility," said Paula Avila-Guillen, the organization's programs specialist for Latin America. "These recommendations are really empty words. They aren't going hand in hand with policies to make contraception and emergency contraception available, especially in El Salvador where those things are very inaccessible." 

Reproductive rights advocates hope the desperate situation caused by the ZIka epidemic gives El Salvador and other heavily Catholic Latin American countries the impetus to reevaluate their family planning and abortion policies. 

"This is an opportunity the government has to change its law and stop this discrimination against women," Avila-Guillen said. 

This story was supported by funding from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.   

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