Latin American countries affected by the Zika virus have been urged to give women better access to birth control by the United Nations, sparking debates about reproductive rights in the overwhelmingly Catholic region.
The mosquito-borne virus, rampaging through the Americas, has been linked to a surge in microcephaly cases – a neurological defect causing babies heads to grow smaller than expected.
Although the link is not scientifically proven, microcephaly has become an urgent threat, sparking fears the virus, which causes permanent neuron-developmental delay, could have a significant impact on a generation of children.
Since being called an international emergency by the World Health Organization, health authorities in at least five affected countries have advised women to avoid getting pregnant, with El Salvador suggesting women delay pregnancy until 2018.
The advice has been called irresponsible by reproductive rights advocates, who say it does not reflect the reality of the harsh reproduction laws in largely Catholic Latin America.
Women's rights essential in Zika response
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights argued on Friday that upholding women’s human rights is essential in making the response to the Zika health emergency effective.
“Clearly, managing the spread of Zika is a major challenge to the governments in Latin America,” said Zeid Ra’as Al Hussein.
"In situations where sexual violence is rampant, and sexual and reproductive health services are criminalized, or simply unavailable, efforts to halt this crisis will not be enhanced by placing the focus on advising women and girls not to become pregnant."
Many Latin American countries completely outlaw abortion, or allow it only if the mother’s life is in danger. In the Zika-affected countries that do offer abortion women still face obstacles, with few knowing it is an option and many doctors unwilling to perform the procedure.
Reproductive laws in Latin America
The day before the UN’s announcement a judge in Brazil, which has reported the highest rise in Zika-linked birth defects, took the rare move of publicly announcing he will allow women to have legal abortions in cases of microcephaly.
Abortions are allowed in Brazil only in cases of rape, anencephaly – a more severe form of microcephaly – or if the mother's life is in danger. Until recently, conservative lawmakers sought to make legal abortions even more restrictive, said to be reflective of the increasingly powerful evangelical Christian movement in the country, the New York Times reports.
Colombia, which has the second highest number of microcephaly cases after Brazil, does allow abortions in cases of foetal defects. However, around 99 per cent of abortions are clandestine as many doctors refuse to perform them and few women have access to professional medical facilities.
El Salvador, one of the first countries to advise women not to get pregnant, has some of the strictest reproductive laws in the world.
The Zika virus - in pictures
The Zika virus - in pictures
A three-month-old, who has microcephaly, in Recife, Brazil. A rise in microcephaly cases is thought to have been caused by the spread of the Zika virus in affected countries
A mother holds her baby who has microcephaly
A five-month-old baby, who has microcephaly, in Recife, Brazil
A pediatric infectologist examines a two-month-old baby, who has microcephaly, in Recife, Brazil
A baby affected with microcephaly
Contraception is only available in cities and women can spend up to 40 years in prison if they are convicted of attempting to end their pregnancy, even if a woman’s life is at risk.
With a threat as titianic as that posed by Zika, reproductive rights’ advocates hope the disease may lead to legal shifts in a region where abortion is often a taboo issue.
Amanda Klasing of Human Rights Watch told ThinkProgress: “I do think that it’s going to create more of a space for a conversation around reproductive rights, maybe with a little bit less of the stigma and shame that has been associated with those discussions in the past.”