Although not much is known about the Zika virus epidemic, and there are claims that the link between the mosquito-borne virus and fetal brain defects resulting from microcephaly is unproven, the fears faced by pregnant women in the regions affected are beyond dispute. This alone is cause enough to demand action to allow these women the choice of abortion.
In countries that have seen increased cases of Zika and microcephaly, governments have issued warnings to women: Colombia has advised women not to get pregnant for the next six to eight months and El Salvador has called on women to wait two years before getting pregnant. And yet, women in much of Latin America face strict controls on both abortion and contraception. This makes planning births impossible. Nine of the affected countries have highly restricted abortion laws. The Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Nicaragua provide no legal access to abortion under any circumstances, and a further six countries in the region only allow abortion to save a woman’s life.
The plight of women in Latin America has prompted the United Nations high commissioner for human rights to call on the countries hit by the virus to allow women access to abortion and other methods of birth control. The pope’s visit to Mexico next week will no doubt provide him with a (some might say God-given) platform to empathise with the members of his church who are being hit by the virus in the region.
A global poll of Catholics conducted by Univision in 2014 found that 91 per cent of Catholics in Latin America support modern birth control. In reaction to this, the leaders of the Catholic Church used their political influence in developing countries and at the UN to block access to public-funded family-planning programmes. Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, has appealed to Pope Francis to use the visit next week to reverse this injustice by lifting the church’s ban on birth control, which has always been motivated by politics rather than theology. Catholics for Choice claims that traditional Catholic teaching about conscience gives women the final moral authority over their abortion decision. And progressive Catholic theologians argue that abortion can be justified in a range of situations, including severe fetal anomaly.
There is little doubt that, with or without the pope’s blessing, Latin American women from all walks of life will access abortion when they feel the risks of Zika are too high. Women always find ways to end unbearable pregnancies. ‘Unsafe abortion is the No1 maternal mortality cause in the region’, said Paula Ávila-Guillen, programmes specialist at the Center for Reproductive Rights and an expert on reproductive policy in Latin America, in an interview with the Guardian. ‘When women decide to terminate their pregnancies, they are going to do so – it’s just a matter of how.’