The Zika Virus’ Unlikely Silver Lining
ould a mosquito-borne illness that threatens to spread across the Americas actually push countries to change their restrictive approaches to women’s health care?
International reproductive rights experts hope so. After health officials in several countries affected by the Zika virus suggested women avoid pregnancy in order to avoid having children with the severe birth defects the illness is believed to cause, human rights groups are countering with their own asks. They see the focus the virus has brought to unwanted and unhealthy pregnancies as a way to galvanize around reforming some of the harshest abortion laws in the world.
“Women need to know that their governments aren’t prepared to stop the spread of the virus, but that’s not a complete solution,” Amanda Klasing of Human Rights Watch’s women division told ThinkProgess.
In a region where more than half of all pregnancies in the region are unplanned, she said, governments need to make contraception — and even abortion — accessible to women in order to prevent the most harmful impact of the untreatable virus.
Four of the six countries in the world that ban abortion in all instances have either already been affected by the Zika virus, or are in its current path. Officials with the World Health Organization have warned that virus is expected to expand its reach across the entire Western hemisphere, with four million cases projected to arise before the close of 2016.
While a few harrowing cases of women denied their reproductive rights — including an 11-year old girl who became pregnant after she was raped by her stepfather in Paraguay last year — have led to widespread demonstrations in some countries, the Zika virus poses a particularly widespread risk to maternal and fetal health.
That’s why some rights’ activists see an opportunity in the alarming illness that made its way from Western Africa to South America in 2014.
For Latin America’s vibrant pro-choice movement, there are some sights for hope, especially since socially conservative Brazil made reforms to its otherwise stringent abortion laws by the health risks posed by anecephaly, a rare condition that fatally damages skull and brain formation in fetuses. Although nearly 80 percent of Brazilians polled in 2014 were against legalizing abortion, they may make an exception in cases of the Zika virus, which can cause fetuses to developmicrocephaly, or an underdeveloped brain.
With a threat as widespread as the one posed by the Zika virus, Klasing and other human and reproductive rights’ advocates are hoping for a widespread shift in policy in a region where abortion is no-go issue for many politicians.
“I think it is a unique moment to talk about women’s reproductive health in the context of this very scary public health crises,” Klasing said. “It really demonstrates the heartbreaking impact of restrictions on abortion services for women and girls when you have this potential of birth defects.”
The virus might help shift the discussion from a matter to one of social values mired in religious beliefs into a matter of public health — and the risks Zika poses to the future of Latin America.
“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,” Klasing added.
Reproductive health and rights groups have already started to initiate some of those discussions. ThinkProgress reached out to three experts from around Latin America to talk about how an alarming illness could spark change in the region’s entrenched policies against abortion.