Zika fears increase demand for abortions in countries where it's illegal to have one

As the Zika virus, which has been linked to birth defects, spreads across Latin America, the demand for abortions is increasing in countries where there are few legal avenues to obtain one.

“It has made the issue more salient and has highlighted the cruelty behind some of these restrictive abortion laws,” said Francoise Girard, president of the International Women's Health Coalition, a New York-based nonprofit that advocates for sexual and reproductive health and rights.

“There is an incredible amount of anxiety, fear and stress among women that are pregnant,” she added.

Leticia Zenevich, a spokeswoman for Women on Web, an international nonprofit that provides advice and drugs to women who want abortions but live in countries where the practice is banned, said that requests for abortion-inducing medication have surged since the outbreak began.

In 2015, the group received 10,400 emails from women in the Spanish-speaking Americas and 9,500 emails from women largely in Brazil inquiring about abortion medication, Zenevich said. She said the group had not yet calculated the exact increase in requests for antiabortion drugs since the Zika outbreak, but they believe the numbers could have doubled.

The nonprofit has been providing abortion pills free of charge to women in Zika-affected countries since Feb. 1, Zenevich said. Typically the drugs cost between $78 and $100.

Abortion-rights activists and health specialists fear that the failure to loosen restrictions on abortion might force more women to undergo dangerous, clandestine abortions, which are already a problem across much of Latin America.

“During this crisis women will look for any means to have an abortion,” Zenevich said. “The landscape is very tragic for women in Latin America.”

El Salvador, Nicaragua, Chile, Haiti, Honduras, Suriname and the Dominican Republic outlaw abortion with no legal exceptions, not even to save a woman’s life, according to reproductive rights advocacy groups. More than a dozen Salvadoran women have been sentenced to as long as 50 years behind bars as a result of miscarriages or stillborn births, civil rights advocates say.

Brazil, Venezuela, Panama, Paraguay, Guatemala and Mexico are among the nations that prohibit abortion except when necessary to save a woman's life. Saving a woman’s life as well as protecting her physical health are the criteria for having an abortion in Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina, Costa Rica, the Bahamas and Grenada.

The outbreak has prompted calls to loosen these countries’ restrictive abortion laws. Recently, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights called for “laws and policies that restrict access to sexual and reproductive health services” to be repealed as an effective response to the Zika health emergency.

Even Pope Francis suggested to reporters during a recent visit to Mexico that artificial contraception might be permissible in the fight against Zika. But he described abortion as “a crime” and an “absolute evil.”

El Salvador’s health minister has argued for abortion laws to be revised because of the threat of birth abnormalities, but his efforts have gained little traction.

Activists and Colombia and Brazil have also sought to have the laws relaxed.

“We are not demanding the right to abortion in case of any specific diagnosis for the fetus,” Debora Diniz, founder of Anis, a Brazilian abortion rights group that is petitioning the country’s Supreme Court, said in an email. “We are demanding the right to be freed of the psychological torture of living an imposed pregnancy in times of an epidemic caused by a decades-old negligence of Brazilian policies in controlling the mosquito.”

Diniz, who also teaches law at the University of Brasilia, said the petition is also demanding that pregnant women receive quality information about Zika, counseling and social protection and support if they are infected with Zika and have babies with disabilities.

The activists face an uphill battle.

The Brazilian Conference of Catholic Bishops has rejected the argument that Zika should justify a relaxation of abortion laws. And the speaker of the lower house proposed legislation to make it harder to get an abortion in cases of rape, according to Reuters. Other opponents of abortion argue that there is still not enough proof the virus causes birth defects. Last month a team of epidemiologists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention launched a research project in Brazil to determine whether Zika is really to blame for the recent increase in abnormalities in newborns.

In the meantime, some governments are urging women to postpone getting pregnant for several months, if not years.

Officials in El Salvador have suggested that women avoid conceiving until 2018, while Ecuador, Colombia and Jamaica have proposed shorter intervals, according to media reports.

Human rights advocates say such demands are unreasonable and unfeasible particularly in nations where methods to prevent pregnancies are not readily available.

Even before the Zika crisis, more than half of all pregnancies in Latin America were unintended because of inadequate access to modern contraceptives, said Susan Cohen, the Guttmacher Institute’s vice president for public policy.

“Women need contraceptive services more than just to prevent Zika,” Cohen said.

Now “the need is that [much] more urgent,” she added. “It is the responsibility of the government in these countries to step up and address this” directly, she said.

The Americas have one of the highest numbers of unwanted teen pregnancies in the world, and pregnancy is the third leading cause of death for women in the region, according to data from the Center for Reproductive Rights.

“Telling these women to just not get pregnant is adding insult to injury,” said Charles Abbott, the group’s legal advisor for Latin America and the Caribbean.

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