The Zika Virus Is Reshaping the Abortion Debate


A MOSQUITO-BORNE ILLNESS with the potential to cause major birth defects is changing arguments about a woman’s right to choose.

The Zika virus is reshaping the abortion debate in countries with some of the most restrictive reproductive-health laws in the world. Here’s what you need to know about Zika and the countries it has affected the most.

The Zika virus reached the Americas in 2015, and it quickly spread to more than 20 countries, including the U.S. Adults who contract the disease experience flu-like symptoms for about a week — the same amount of time the infection will remain in a person’s blood.

Zika isn’t thought to spread from person to person, but it can spread from person to mosquito to person; an individual who has Zika can infect a non-carrying mosquito, allowing the insect to spread the disease to others. It may also be possible to spread the illness through sexual intercourse, but this has not been proven.

Because the mosquito-borne illness causes such benign symptoms in adults, it was not given much thought when it first reached American shores. After a large number of Brazilian children were born with birth defects, however, researchers began to draw links between their condition and Zika.

The specific birth defect Zika causes is microcephaly: a condition in which the brain does not grow to full size during prenatal development. It can lead to seizures, intellectual disabilities, and developmental delays, and may even be life-threatening.

It’s important to note that we do not yet know whether the Zika virus causes microcephaly. It’s possible that the disease causes many more birth defects than just microcephaly, of course, but researchers are not yet convinced of the link between the two. But the outlook is bad enough for the CDC to issue warnings about the virus to people who may become pregnant.

Many of the countries most affected by the virus have issued their own warnings as well. El Salvador advised women to avoid pregnancy until 2018. Colombia and Ecuador issued similar advisories, as did currently-Zika-free Jamaica. The problem here is that these countries offer few or no options for women who want to comply with the warning.

El Salvador is one of only six countries with an outright ban on abortion. It does not relent to save the life of the mother, or in cases of rape or incest. Women who suffer miscarriages find themselves imprisoned with alarming regularity. The forms of contraception that have become synonymous with “birth control” in the U.S. — condoms and the Pill — are expensive and rare in El Salvador. Instead, nearly 40 percent of women in the country opt for sterilization procedures to prevent pregnancy.

El Salvador’s pregnancy delay advisory, then, is more of a tubal ligation order for women who are not equipped to raise children with special needs.

The situation isn’t much different in other countries. Nina Feitosa, a 38-year-old Brazilian lawyer who put off fertility treatments because of Zika, told NPR: “This feels like it has taken away our right to have a child.” Brazil only allows legal abortions in the case of rape, a risk to the mother’s life, or a fetus’ terminal illness.

The United Nations recently declared abortion a human right, in a landmark case that bears striking similarity to the current Zika outbreak. In 2001, 17-year-old K.L. of Peru learned that her baby had anencephaly: a neural tube defect that prevents the brain and skull from developing. The fetus’ condition and the risk to the mother’s health were enough to constitute a therapeutic abortion, but K.L.’s doctors refused to perform the procedure. More than a decade since the U.N. ruled in her favor, K.L. received compensation for the “cruel, inhuman, and degrading” treatment she received.

Zika isn’t the first microcephaly-causing illness to stir up the abortion debate. Before Roe v. Wade and a vaccine, rubella prompted lawmakers in some states to legalize therapeutic abortions. Toxoplasmosis and cytomegalovirus can also cause microcephaly.

The U.S. and Brazil are currently at work on a method of treating or preventing Zika, but their work is complicated by several factors, including the fact that we still do not know the full extent of the virus’ effects on fetal development. There are also major differences between the cases of microcephaly that appear to be Zika-related and those caused by other conditions. For example, “the muscles in the upper body and neck are unusually stiff” in Zika-related microcephaly, and the brains are abnormally smooth. Dr. João Ricardo de Almeida tells NPR that this “degree of brain damage … will probably mean that rehabilitation will be very difficult.”

For mothers already affected by poverty and unable to prevent future pregnancies, this new outbreak will certainly lead to desperate measures. Legalizing abortion may be Latin America’s only way to prevent rashes of suicide, infanticide, illegal abortion, and other tragedies.