IMPACT
02/02/2016 12:21 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Zika Virus Prompts Activists To Push For Legal Abortions In Brazil

"What we have at this moment, in this country, is a group of women in fear."

A group of Brazilian lawyers, scientists and activists will petition the country’s Supreme Court to allow abortions if a baby would be born with microcephaly, as detailed in the Newsy video above.

Microcephaly, a condition in which babies are born with abnormally small heads and serious developmental delays, is strongly linked to the Zika virus that is spreading through South America. The World Health organization declared a state of emergency around the virus on Monday.

Scientists have confirmed that Zika can pass from mother to fetus, which means pregnant women are highly at risk for the virus, which has no vaccine or cure. Officials have warned women to avoid getting pregnant, but over half of all pregnancies in countries like Brazil are unplanned. And abortion is illegal in most of the South American countries where Zika is prevalent. 

Brazil is the epicenter of the Zika outbreak, with 270 confirmed cases of microcephalic babies and 3,448 more under investigation, according to the BBC

"What we have at this moment, in this country, is a group of women who is in fear of getting pregnant and not knowing what will happen during the pregnancy," Debora Diniz, a University of Brasilia law professor, said in the video.

Mario Tama via Getty Images

Diniz is leading the petition to the Supreme Court, which will be delivered in two months, according to the BBC. The petition claims that "the Brazilian state is responsible for the Zika outbreak" because it did not eradicate the mosquito carrying the disease.

The relationship between Zika and microcephaly is not yet fully understood

Abortion is illegal in Brazil except when the mother’s life is in danger or in cases of rape. The only other exception was added 2012, in the case of anencephaly, another rare brain disorder in which the baby is born without parts of its brain and skull. The same group of activists, led by Diniz, campaigned for the anencephaly exception.

The Zika emergency is forcing pro-life South American countries to confront their pregnancy and abortion policies, sometimes in bizarre ways. El Salvador suggested women just avoid falling pregnant until 2018, and Colombia advised the same for 6-8 months. Latin America has extremely restrictive abortion laws and and 95% of abortions performed there are unsafe. 

But even though it is illegal, the reality of abortion is different for rich and poor Brazilians, said Sonia Correa, of the website Sexuality Policy Watch, to PRI.org. She said wealthy women can arrange abortions in private clinics, or hire an attorney to make a case for abortion to a local legal tribunal, whereas poor women can do neither.

If the Brazilian petition succeeds, it wouldn't be the first time a disease as sparked a change in abortion laws. As NPR reports, a 1960's rubella outbreak brought abortion to national attention in the U.S., and paved the way to Roe v. Wade. Women with rubella had a 50% chance of giving birth to babies with congenital rubella syndrome, a fact that increased public sympathy for illicit abortions. 

Katja Iversen, chief executive of the advocacy group Women Deliver, criticized the WHO for focusing on the spread of the virus to the exclusion of reproductive rights. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see WHO’s reproductive health department involved as well,” she told The Guardian. “Yes, it is about a mosquito carrying a dangerous virus, but it is also about a health system failing women.” 

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