By Farzana Paleker
An increase in the number of babies being born with microcephaly in Zika-affected areas of Brazil has sparked a heated debate over the country’s strict abortion laws. Abortions in Brazil are illegal except in instances of rape and in cases where fetuses are diagnosed with anencephaly, a condition resulting in an underdeveloped brain and an incomplete skull. The World Health Organization has declared the Zika virus infection an international public health emergency, and has found a causal link between the virus and microcephaly.
The mosquito-borne virus has reached epidemic proportions in other Latin American countries, many of which have similar or even more stringent abortion laws. The abortion debate has reignited in these areas as well, with many groups calling for the legalization of abortion in cases where the fetus is diagnosed with microcephaly. However, such an expansion in current legislation will necessitate late-term abortions: microcephaly is typically detected at the end of the second trimester. Changes in the legislation may be further complicated by reports that microcephaly does not progress as predictably as anencephaly, where almost all affected babies die within a few weeks. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a prenatal diagnosis of microcephaly is not an infallible predictor of disability; around 10 percent of afflicted babies are mentally healthy.
As legal scholars and rights groups prepare to challenge existing abortion laws in Brazil, a movement that could reverberate across Latin America, religious leaders have pledged to oppose any changes to the legislation. Oxford bioethicist Dominic Wilkinson has suggested that women across the region invest in birth control to prevent cases of microcephaly while Women on Web, an abortion rights group, is offering free Plan B pills to women infected with Zika. All proposed measures, however, continue to place the burden of sexual and reproductive accountability primarily on women.