Zika Virus Raises Need for Increased Access to Reproductive Healthcare

As the Zika virus spreads, at least five countries have advised women to delay pregnancy, advice that many women’s rights advocates have criticized as unrealistic and offensive given restrictive abortion laws and the inaccessibility of birth control in many of the affected areas.

The Zika virus, which is typically transmitted through mosquito bites, has been linked to poor pregnancy outcomes, including microcephaly, a condition where the brain does not develop properly causing a newborn’s head to be smaller than expected. Microcephaly is linked to severe physical and intellectual developmental delays.

Officials in Colombia recently advised women to delay pregnancy for six to eight months. In Jamaica, the Health Ministry advised waiting up to a year. El Salvador recommended postponing pregnancy for two years, and officials in Brazil and Ecuador advised women in those countries to delay pregnancy indefinitely.

Monica Roa, programs director of Women’s Link Worldwide, called the recommendations “naïve and ineffective.” In an interview with NPR, Roa explained that more than 50 percent of pregnancies in Latin America are unplanned and that the recommendations “fail to take into account the prevalence of rape and sexual violence in the region.” Roa also noted that many women lack information about and access to birth control and abortion, even in countries where these services are legal.

In countries where abortion is illegal, recommendations to postpone pregnancy to deal with a global health emergency are particularly questionable. “To prevent pregnancies in situations of risk, this isn’t a bad option, but it’s not enough,” said Morena Herrera, president of the Citizen’s Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion in El Salvador. “We don’t think it is taking into account the realities of the women in El Salvador.”

Abortion in El Salvador is illegal, with no exceptions for rape, incest, severe fetal anomalies, or to save a woman’s life, forcing women to seek out potentially dangerous illegal abortions. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 35,000 women in El Salvador obtain unsafe abortions each year. Restrictive laws have even made women in El Salvador subject to prison for up to 50 years for miscarrying or for stillbirth. Between 2000 and 2011 alone, 129 Salvadoran women faced prosecution for “abortion” crimes, including 23 convictions for undergoing an illegal abortion and 26 found guilty of homicide.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, has urged countries affected by Zika to ensure that women have access to sexual and reproductive health counseling and that responses respect women’s human rights.

“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,” said Al Hussein. “Many of the key issues revolve around men’s failure to uphold the rights of women and girls, and a range of strong measures need to be taken to tackle these underlying problems.”

For now, charitable organizations like Women on Waves, a floating women’s reproductive health clinic providing contraception and medical abortions to women in underserved countries, hope to stem the spread of the virus by offering free medical abortions for women in Zika-infected areas who are less than nine weeks pregnant.

The World Health Organization has not endorsed delaying pregnancy as a means of controlling the Zika virus.  Instead, WHO has called for a preventive response that focuses on preventing transmission through the control of mosquito populations and the prevention of bites.

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