The Zika Virus and Abortion Laws in Latin America

Recently, global attention has fallen on the Zika virus which has been declared a “global public health emergency” by the World Health Organization. The Zika virus is a disease that is spread mainly through infected mosquito bites, and it is very prevalent in Latin America.

In adults, the Zika virus can cause “fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis,” and it rarely requires infected adults to be hospitalized. Unfortunately, the virus can cause detrimental effects to infants born to women who were pregnant when they were bitten by the infected mosquitos. Specifically, the virus may cause microcephaly in infants (who were in utero when their mother was initially infected). Microcephaly can cause infants’ heads to be much smaller than normal and can cause infants to have underdeveloped brains. In addition, the disease may cause seizure, developmental problems, and visual and hearing problems for these infants.

In light of these dangers, public debate has ignited over several Latin American countries’ abortion laws. For example, there is a complete ban on abortion in Nicaragua, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, and Chile. In Colombia, the law allows abortions where the mother’s health is at risk and when the “fetus displays signs of severe deformity.” In Brazil, abortion is permitted in cases of rape, when the mother’s life is at risk, and when the fetus has ancephaly.

Unfortunately, all of these countries have reported cases of the Zika virus. As of recent reports, at least 100 El Salvadoran women have tested positive for the Zika virus. In Brazil, at least 3,893 infants were born with microcephaly from October 2015 until the middle of January 2016. In response to the outbreak, the governments of “Ecuador, El Salvador, Jamaica, and Colombia . . . recommend that women delay their pregnancies.

In addition, the dangers of the Zika virus has cause several Latin American governments, such as Brazil, to consider revising their abortion laws. In other Latin American countries, such as Colombia, women are permitted to get abortions if they have been infected with the Zika virus. However, these exceptions are not well known “in the most affected areas [, where there is less] clarity over these laws.” In these affected areas, “there is [also] a lack of information and access to [such abortion] services.”

Even with the threat of severe deformities caused by the virus, lobbyists exist on both sides of the issue in Latin America. There are many arguments both for and against abortion in the Zika virus context. For example, lobbyists against abortion argue that aborting a fetus (who may have microcephaly) is prejudice against a disabled person. Supporters for more relaxed abortion measures argue that the virus may cause very severe birth defects, and that women will still get abortions—although poorer women (compared to wealthier women) will be more likely to get abortions in life-threatening and unsanitary conditions.

Latin American countries that completely ban abortions (even in Zika virus cases) should consider revising their laws to make the virus an exception to these abortion laws. Further, countries with Zika virus exceptions should publicize the exceptions to areas that are heavily impacted by the virus. If these countries cannot make such exceptions, then those countries’ governments should provide financial assistance for the medical costs associated with caring for the infants who suffer from microcephaly.

Kelci Scirrotto is a 3L and a senior editor of the Journal of Law and International Affairs at the Penn State University Dickinson School of Law.

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