It definitely doesn’t seem like the World Health Organization was exaggerating when it declared the Zika virus a public health emergency. The virus has taken hold throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and the effect of Zika on the developing fetuses of women who contract the virus is proving to be devastating. Pregnant women in these countries — and most notably in Brazil — are giving birth to an unusually high number of babies born with severe microcephaly, a birth defect that compromises brain growth and results in an abnormally small head. Medical evidence suggesting that these babies will be profoundly disabled has led to some parents looking to terminate their pregnancies following a Zika diagnosis. But can women in Brazil get abortions because of the Zika threat? The short answer, is no — and the implications of that reality are having a huge effect.
According to Think Progress, more than 4,000 women in Brazil are thought to have given birth to babies with microcephaly caused by the Zika virus. As concerns about Zika have ramped up, and more knowledge about the risks to unborn babies is out, more and more women are trying to find ways around Brazil’s strict abortion laws, which make it illegal to both perform and receive abortions in the conservative, Catholic country. According to TIME, “women who consent to an abortion or self-abort face between one and three years in prison,” unless they meet the three criteria for legal abortion: pregnancy as a result of rape, pregnancies where the mother’s life is at risk, or pregnancies where the child will not survive. As a result, according to Think Progress, an international NGO called Women on Web had been shipping free abortion pills to women in Brazil who had contacted them for help, but government authorities began confiscating all shipments of the medication, leaving pregnant women without any safe option to terminate their pregnancies.
Pro-life supporters in Brazil (which, as TIME noted, is actually the majority of the country) argue that babies born with microcephaly should be given the same right to life that all people in the country are guaranteed under Brazil’s constitution, and that terminating a pregnancy because of microcephaly is an insult to everyone who was born with the condition, since many people with microcephaly go on to have a reasonably high quality of life. Simone Tavares, a mother of two children who were born with microcephaly and who are now para-athletes, is one of the supporters who spoke out against the push for legalized abortions, telling Motherboard,
...everyone has the right to be born, everyone has their mission and needs to go through certain understandings, regardless of handicap.
The difficulty with Zika-related microcephaly, though, is that it is so much more severe than what doctors are used to seeing from babies born from the usual cases where babies develop microcephaly as a result of a genetic condition, or from things like lack of oxygen in utero, or drug and alcohol use. According to the Washington Post, the effects of microcephaly normally land on a spectrum, where some children are barely affected, and others — normally about 10 percent — have severe impairment and need constant care. What doctors in Brazil are finding, however, is that the babies with microcephaly suspected to stem from the Zika virus are almost always at the severe end of the spectrum, with different brain abnormalities that usually aren’t present, according to NPR. Dr. João Ricardo de Almeida told NPR that the babies he’s seen, “are not going to be functional. They'll need care for the rest of their lives."
So what are women in Brazil left to do when getting an abortion could land you in jail, and customs refuses to allow your abortion pills to cross the border? The answer in many cases, according to Think Progress, is that they are turning to unsafe, back-alley abortions, black-market abortion pills, or self-induced abortions — all of which pose serious health risks. This is especially true for those living in poverty, who do not have other options available to them, like paying thousands of dollars for still-illegal-but-safe abortions from doctors willing to take the risk. It's also very expensive (in South American standards) to have abortion pills shipped from Women on Web to another country where abortion is legal.
The consequences, of course, can be life-threatening. As Sonia Coelho, a spokesperson for the National Campaign for the Legalization of Abortion, told the Los Angeles Times,
We have a situation here in Brazil in which women are having clandestine abortions, and in which women are dying. This brings consequences...principally for poorer women and black women, who lack the means to have an abortion in a safer place.
Unfortunately, not only does it not look like abortion in the cases of Zika-related microcephaly will become legal any time soon, it actually might get even harder to obtain. According to TIME, lawmakers in Brazil have drafted a new law increasing the minimum jail sentence for women who abort their pregnancies, as well as for any doctors who perform abortions.
Instead, the government is endorsing abstinence — specifically, holding off on pregnancy entirely until 2018, according to Motherboard. But even though in theory that incredibly-problematic plan would be a solution (if you don’t get pregnant at all, I guess you wouldn’t need an abortion), the reality is that, well, abstinence has never exactly been an effective method of contraception. And since there is still no effective way to stop the transmission of the virus, that means women in Brazil are left with a whole lot of nothing when it comes to answers or support.
In other words, when it comes to Zika, nobody wins.