How anti-abortion laws in the Americas are fuelling the Zika virus epidemic

“While we try to kill all mosquitos, or come up with a way to genetically modify them, we suggest you do not have sex for two years”

The El Salvadorian government have a questionable solution to preventing the spread of the mosquito carried virus. Unpicked in its most simplistic form, the message seems to be: “While we try to kill all mosquitos, or come up with a way to genetically modify them, we suggest you do not have sex for two years”.

A combination of anti-abortion laws and inadequate access to contraception means this ‘solution’ is simply not feasible.  While people inevitably continue to have sex, and anti-abortion laws persist, the Zika virus will ultimately continue to spread.

Anti-abortion laws are, unsurprisingly, ineffective. With the availability of illegal backstreet abortion clinics, we have to question whether the Zika epidemic will force more vulnerable women to risk their lives as it spreads throughout the Americas. The virus seems to cause severe birth defects, such as microcephaly, that can dramatically alter its victim’s quality of life. So given the circumstance, it is unsurprising that those women whose foetuses are affected may consider a termination.

The lack of knowledge surrounding a diagnosis like microcephaly will only makes matters worse for parents left in the dark, questioning whether their newborn child will ever be able to walk or talk.

Anti-abortion laws tend to have loopholes. The United Kingdom, as one example, offers NHS abortion services for international patients living in regions where terminations are illegal. So essentially, providing you can afford a plane ticket, medical bills and some form of shelter for a few nights, the procedure is not as inaccessible as governments tend to make out.

Nevertheless, there is an underlying bleakness to this opportunity. In the classic nature of capitalism, the less well-off are once again penalised by financial restrictions not enabling them to jet off across the Atlantic. As Human Rights Watch advocates, “safe abortion services are first and foremost a human right”.

An unwanted pregnancy can pose difficult emotional obstacles for women facing the prospect of a life, far from how they imagined it. Studies have shown, for example, a positive correlation between unwanted pregnancies and an increased risk of postpartum depression. A rise in infanticide – by deliberate neglect – is a possible imminent threat facing regions where abortion is prohibited and Zika fever is on the increase. 

In the face of a health epidemic, it is more important than ever for the Americas to reanalyse their laws on abortion. While the virus is uncontained, it is inevitable that newborns affected by Zika will continue to be born with severe health defects. And attempting to avoid this by advising that couples simply stop having sex until some unknowable time in the future when a vaccine or similar medical interventions can be developed is simply nonsensical. With the timescale this unsure, it could end in politicians asking an entire generation not to procreate because of the risk.

Quite simply, it’s time for the powers that be to become more sensible about abortion, and to address the human rights issue at the centre of the latest Zika virus outbreak.

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