Pregnant women in Brazil who are infected with Zika—a virus suspected of causing birth defects—are prohibited from having an abortion. That’s prompting a group of lawyers, activists, and scientists to demand that the country’s supreme court make an exception.
Zika is currently at epidemic levels in Brazil, causing considerable worry among many expectant mothers. The virus has been linked, albeit inconclusively, to microcephaly, a rare disorder that causes abnormally small heads in newborns. Last year, Brazil documented 3,500 cases of microcephaly, which is an order of magnitude above normal levels. Experts are warning that three to four million people living in the Americas could be infected by the virus this year. The situation is so serious that El Salvador is recommending that all women refrain from getting pregnant until 2018.
As it stands, abortion is illegal in Brazil, except in cases where the mother’s life is in danger, or when a pregnancy happens through rape. In 2012, Brazil’s government made a third exception, allowing abortions for anencephaly, another rare brain condition. But as the BBC reports, a new petition is making the rounds in Brazil asking for the country’s supreme court to consider cases of Zika as well.
The petition, organized by a group of lawyers, activists, and scientists, is expected to be delivered to the supreme court in about two months. It argues that Brazilian women “should not be penalized for the consequences of flawed policies.” The group is blaming the government, probably unfairly, that it has not done enough to eradicate A. aegypti, the mosquito responsible for spreading Zika. Law professor Debora Diniz told the BBC that “when we talk about abortion and reproductive rights in general, that we have a social class split in Brazil—wealthy women will access safe abortion, legal or illegal, and poor women will go to the illegal market or continue to be pregnant.”
The Zika epidemic is compelling this poor, but largely pro-life country, to tackle the abortion issue head on. The government now faces a very difficult decision: allow Zika-infected women access to abortions, or potentially bear the financial burden of having to provide social assistance for families raising children with a severe brain disorder. If Brazil fails to address the latter scenario, then the burden of Zika will be firmly placed on the shoulders of women.
The links between Zika and microcephaly are still poorly understood, but scientists suspect that damage to the fetus happens during the first trimester. Researchers also believe that women who have been previously infected with Zika are not at risk of having children with the brain disorder.
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