As the Zika epidemic sweeps Brazil, the country’s Health Ministry has struggled to address one of the disease’s most troubling complications: microcephaly, a birth defect that causes babies to have abnormally small heads. Although the rise in microcephaly rates has not been conclusively tied to Zika, experts such as Dr. César Victora, emeritus professor of epidemiology at the Federal University of Pelotas, are “100 percent sure that there is a link.”
Unfortunately, the Health Ministry’s current approach to the crisis—asking women to refrain from becoming pregnant to avoid microcephaly and other Zika-related birth defects—is unfair and unhelpful. Like much of Catholic Latin America, Brazil provides limited access to contraception, and “even if a woman is convinced by the government’s messages, she might still get pregnant unintentionally,” as said by Carmen Barroso, regional director of the International Planned Parenthood Federation in the Western Hemisphere. In fact, over half of the pregnancies in Latin America and the Caribbean are accidental, and unmarried adolescent women are particularly at risk, as 43 percent of them do not use any form of birth control, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
Additionally, Zika has recently been shown to be sexually transmissible, indicating an even greater need for the Brazilian Health Ministry to endorse and distribute contraceptives. “If a man…gets sick with Zika, and then has sexual intercourse with a woman who is pregnant or may be pregnant, there is the theoretical risk that that woman [and her fetus] could then become infected with Zika,” explained Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Aside from abstinence, condoms offer the only protection against this form of Zika transmission, the CDC reports, and therefore the Brazilian government’s anti-condom stance has the potential to be highly detrimental to public health.
Brazil’s restrictive abortion laws are equally problematic, as the rural women most impacted by the Zika outbreak are those with the fewest resources to care for children with microcephaly. “The poorest women live in the mountains, places in tropical areas where there are more mosquitos and they’re more isolated from health facilities. This virus will probably affect them disproportionately,” said Paula Avila-Guillen, a program specialist for the Center for Reproductive Rights. The Brazilian government’s pro-life policies—including allegedly confiscating shipments of abortion pills from overseas—force these women to seek out dangerous clandestine abortions or resign themselves to supporting children whose medical needs far exceed their finances.
Instead of adding to these women’s distress, the Brazilian Health Ministry should guarantee all women the right to safe sex and abortion. Women are already allowed to terminate pregnancies on the basis of anencephaly (a birth defect in which the infant is missing parts of the brain and skull), meaning an exemption for microcephaly is well within reach. More importantly, the government’s current reproductive health policies are devastatingly out of touch with women’s lives. “My world fell,” wrote one Brazilian woman upon learning the abortion pills she had requested had been seized. “Unfortunately I do not have the freedom of choice in this country, my heart and my soul cries, for my despair only increased.”
Davis is a member of the class of 2017.