Zika and the Right to Abortion

Women and men have the right to make decisions and make choices in their lives. Whether or not to have a child is one of the most important decisions in a woman’s life. Determining in what circumstances to avoid a pregnancy,  to become a mother, or to interrupt a pregnancy – not as a contraceptive method but as a last resort because of the enormous responsibility of having a child in that particular situation – is an individual right and part of the public health agenda.

Since the 1960s and ‘70s, in different parts of the world, laws concerning abortion have become more liberal. In Europe, the United States, Asia,  some African countries and, more recently, in Latin America, legislators have expanded the circumstances in which the law allows for the interruption of pregnancy, especially during the first 12 weeks, and with restrictions as the pregnancy advances.

Brazil has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world. Abortion is allowed only when there is risk to the life of the mother, if the pregnancy results from rape, or if the fetus has an anomaly incompatible with life. However, risk to the physical and emotional health of the woman, fetal anomalies incompatible with quality of life, and social conditions are circumstances taken into consideration in many countries in order to allow for voluntary and safe abortion, yet are not considered under Brazilian law. The common denominator of those laws is the recognition that women have the right to the respect and protection of their physical and emotional integrity, and that the rights of the unborn are not absolute and do not supersede the fundamental rights of the woman.

The 1988 Brazilian Constitution recognizes the reproductive rights that were reaffirmed at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo and the Montevideo Consensus of 2013. However, the debate on abortion occurs in the context of the growing political influence of religious dogma, which rides roughshod over individual rights and health and dominates the debate with moral and punitive arguments.

The emergence of the Zika virus, transmitted by the Aedes aegypt, a mosquito that for decades has been present in urban areas of the country, rendering dengue an endemic disease with a worrisome lethalness, introduced a new element to the public health panorama: the incidence of microcephaly in fetuses of pregnant women infected by Zika. This new epidemiological reality urgently demands an inclusive, respectful, and democratic debate on the right to interrupt pregnancy, always as a free choice, never imposed.

Public health authorities have recommended that women avoid becoming pregnant or even contract Zika before getting pregnant in order to acquire immunity. Oddly, the possibility of pregnant women with Zika having access to abortion has not entered the public debate.

In the current scenario, thousands of pregnant women are afraid to leave the house; they stock up on repellent purchased in pharmacies and live in fear and panic of contracting Zika and becoming pregnant with a fetus with microcephaly.  

If Brazilian law followed the example of countries with more liberal abortion laws, women who are in a panic over carrying a fetus with microcephaly would, based on their right to reproductive autonomy and the emotional integrity of themselves and their families, be able to decide whether  to carry or interrupt their pregnancy.  Such decisions should be made outside the parameters of moral and criminal condemnation and in the context of respect for human dignity.

This article was originally written in Portuguese for O Globo.

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