How Brazil's Zika Outbreak Pushed Women to Challenge the Country's Abortion Ban

How Brazil's Zika Outbreak Pushed Women to Challenge the Country's Abortion Ban

Brazilians who have tested positive for Zika, a mosquito-borne virus that can be transmitted from parent to fetus and can cause microcephaly, are unable to terminate their pregnancies because of the country’s strict abortion laws, prompting women’s groups across the nation to push for greater reproductive rights.

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Lawyers representing these organizations are already preparing their legal challenge of Brazil's abortion ban – which only permits the service in cases where the pregnant person was raped, their life is at risk or, more recently, if the fetus shows signs of anencephaly (when a baby doesn’t have a brain, making it impossible live) – for when the Supreme Court returns from its winter break in August.

They are hopeful that they can make a similar case for abortion rights in instances where people have been infected, risking microcephaly, abnormal brain development, in the fetus, like they did in 2012, when the high court’s decision made abortion legal in cases of anencephaly.

“Women should be able to decide and have the means to terminate pregnancies because they are facing serious risks of having babies with microcephaly and also suffering huge mental distress during their pregnancies. They should not be forced to carry on their pregnancies under the circumstances,” Beatriz Galli, a lawyer on bioethics and human rights who works for Ipas, a global NGO dedicated to ending preventable deaths from unsafe abortions, told the Guardian.

As of July 7, Brazil has reported 1,638 cases of microcephaly, and women’s groups fear without access to legal abortions, those at risk – largely impoverished, Black women – will terminate their pregnancies through dangerous clandestine operations.

According to Galli, doctors handle about 200,000 hospitalization cases of women who have undergone back-ally abortions. They estimate that as many as 1 million illegal terminations have occurred in the South American country, a number that will undoubtedly increase as more pregnant Brazilians contract Zika. There is already evidence of a rise in early abortion through pills obtained unlawfully online.

The movement for abortion rights in Brazil is supported abroad as well. In February, the United Nations called on Latin American countries hit by the Zika epidemic to allow women access to the service as well as birth control.

“We are asking those governments to go back and change those laws … Because how can they ask those women to become pregnant but also not offer them first information that is available, but the possibility to stop their pregnancies if they wish?” spokeswoman Cecile Pouilly said.

In the U.S., attorneys at Yale University insist that Brazil’s policies on Zika have violated women’s human rights.

The government “has failed to enact adequate measures to ensure that all women have access to comprehensive reproductive health information and options, as required by Brazil’s public health and human rights commitments,” reads a review from the Global Health Justice Partnership, a joint initiative of the Yale Law School and the Yale School of Public Health.

It continues: “Failure to ensure adequate infrastructure, public health resources and mosquito control programs in certain areas has greatly exacerbated the Zika and Zika-related microcephaly epidemics, particularly among poor women of racial minorities.”

Debora Diniz, a law professor at the University of Brasilia and co-founder of Anis, a nonprofit institute of bioethics, human Rights and gender, agrees, noting that those hit the worst by Zika are the poor.

“This is an emergency of unknown women. The trouble is they were unknown before the epidemic. I’m not being an opportunist. We have an epidemic and the epidemic shows the face of Brazilian inequality,” she told the news site.

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That’s why women’s rights groups are fighting for more than abortion access. They are demanding factual information for pregnant people, better access to family planning, mosquito repellents for women, more social policies to help children born with birth defects caused by Zika and financial support for parents.

(h/t the Guardian)