The Dilemma of Abortion in Latin America in the times of Zika

By Carol Matos

The arrival of the Zika virus to the American continent dates back to the beginning of 2015. From that time, through October of this year, 48 countries and territories in the Americas have confirmed autochthonous, vector-borne transmission of the Zika virus disease, while five countries in the region have reported sexually transmitted Zika cases, according to the Pan American Health Organization. Likewise, although there are no new territories affected by the Zika virus, some countries such as Panama, Belize, and Saint Kitts and Nevis have shown an increase in this disease.

Photo credit: Janna Figuereo

Photo credit: Janna Figuereo


The most frequent symptoms among people affected by the Zika virus are fever, skin rash, muscle or joint pain, headache and conjunctivitis. However, not all cases develop these symptoms. In addition, when the infected woman is pregnant, there are other risks for the unborn child, such as microcephaly, Guillian-Barré syndrome and other birth defects. This particular situation put pregnant women on the alert due to the permanent damage that the fetus could suffer.

Microcephaly is a neurological disease in which the head circumference is less than average for a baby of its size or age, as defined by the website of the Cleveland Clinic. Guillian-Barré syndrome is a serious disorder that occurs when the body’s defense system attacks part of the body by mistake, leading to an inflammation in the nervous system that causes muscle weakness and other symptoms.

The Illegality of the Abortion

The disease and its symptoms have brought about a change of opinion on abortion for many in Latin America. While Panama allows abortion for malformation of the fetus or congenital diseases, few other countries uphold such beliefs. In countries such as the Dominican Republic, Bolivia and Nicaragua, abortion is prohibited in all its forms. On the other hand, in Paraguay, Peru and Jamaica, abortion is permitted only when the woman’s life is at risk.

Due to such constrictions, many women seek to perform an abortion illegally, putting their lives at risk in places that do not comply with safety and health standards. * Angélica Rosario, from the Dominican Republic, describes for Women Across Frontiers her experience of becoming ill with the Zika virus when she was one month pregnant and fearing the consequences for her baby. More extensive tests confirmed the condition of her son, who would be born with birth defects. For this reason, and because of her scarce financial resources, she decided to end her pregnancy. She had an abortion performed in the backyard of a house, due to the Dominican Republic’s strict prohibition of abortion under any conditions. She mentions that it was one of the most difficult decisions of her life.

For her part, Laura Rojas from Paraguay, explains how after learning that she was infected by the Zika virus and her son would suffer the diseases described above, she decided to travel to the United States, where a legal and safe abortion could be carried out.

As the Zika virus has received growing international attention, proponents of abortion throughout Latin America have defended the practice of abortion, while opposing forces have successfully battled for banning abortion’s legality.

Photo credit: Doris Vargas

Photo credit: Doris Vargas

Liurka Otsuka, a Peruvian lawyer and advocate of sexual and reproductive rights, mentions that, in this region, there have been several strategies on the part of feminist movements for the decriminalization of abortion (for example in cases involving rape, for cases in which therapeutic abortion is necessary, and for cases of birth defects). However, none of these movements have achieved full decriminalization of abortion as an autonomous right of women. Women have been placed in a particular situation of victimization and violation of human rights, more accepted in countries of this region with high levels of machismo, patriarchy and classism.

The views on legalization of abortion vary from one extreme to the other.  Manuel Zapico, Argentine sociologist, says: “Abortion in these cases is, perhaps, not a priority in the agenda, however an important aspect in the future would be that, within that discussion, we include the men’s opinion, since it’s non-existent, and men are legally responsible and the fathers of the child. On the other hand, Isbelia Ruiz Perdomo, a Nicaraguan lawyer and teacher, says that “the decision to have or not have an abortion, falls directly on the woman; it’s her body and only she must decide on it.”

These ideas lead us to question: if states are pro-life in terms of pregnancy termination whatever the circumstances, what happens afterwards?

In the United States, mothers receive financial assistance from the state to support their children when they do not have the means; however, in Latin America we can not speak of pro-life theories if, after birth, children are left to their fate and the idea of protecting life is ignored, without argument.

Women, who are obliged to give birth to children with birth defects and diseases caused by Zika, should receive financial support from the state for the medical treatment needed by the newborn, a situation that is currently not happening.

* The names have been changed to keep the identity of the witnesses confidential.

TOP PHOTO CREDIT: Janna Figuereo

Courtesy of Pan American Health Organization

Courtesy of Pan American Health Organization


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