Zika epidemic highlights women’s access to safe abortion as a basic human right

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Woman in Latin America

Near the end of January, several governments in Latin America and the Caribbean called for women to delay pregnancy until the Zika virus is no longer a threat. These recommendations came after increasing evidence that shows a potential link between Zika in pregnant women and microcephaly in infants.

“This warning might not sound preposterous to many—but in most of these countries, the availability of contraception to avoid unwanted pregnancy is seriously limited,” wrote Ipas Senior Policy Advisor Bia Galli for RH Reality Check. “And access to safe abortion is rare or nonexistent due to highly restrictive criminal laws, even in cases where it’s legal. So these recommendations put a ridiculous burden on women. The Zika virus, in addition to being a widespread medical crisis, has effectively drawn attention to countries’ neglect of women’s reproductive rights in many of the affected countries.”

On Feb. 1, following the advice of its Emergency Committee, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Zika a global health emergency, yet the WHO recommendations barely touched on the reproductive health—and rights—of women in affected countries.

“In effect women are told not to get pregnant but denied the tools needed to prevent pregnancies or abort fetuses that are sick or fatally affected,” said Lawrence O. Gostin in Time Magazine. “Women need a safe alternative. The WHO did not offer help for women caught in this Catch 22, and it failed to defend women’s health and reproductive rights.” The regional Pan American Health Organization similarly avoided specific recommendations concerning reproductive health and rights in the detailed strategy it released on Feb. 3. 

In contrast, United Nations bodies, including the UN Human Rights Committee, have been straightforward in affirming that access to safe, legal abortion is a human right and calling on governments to act accordingly. In a Feb. 5 statement, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein reinforced the need for each woman potentially affected by the Zika virus to have access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services and information, noting that “laws and policies that restrict her access to these services must be urgently reviewed in line with human rights obligations in order to ensure the right to health for all in practice.”  In other contexts, the WHO has also stood up for women’s access to safe abortion, and it offers comprehensive guidance to governments and national health systems. 

Ipas, along with many partners and NGOs such as Women’s Link Worldwide and International Planned Parenthood Federation, has publicly called for governments to fully consider reproductive rights and gender inequality and to put women first. Governments should ensure that women have access to contraception and to safe abortion, particularly in the face of the Zika epidemic, which will disproportionately affect young, poor and rural women. In Brazil, a lawsuit against the government is being led by Dr. Debora Diniz, founder of Anis – Institute of Bioethics and a Professor at the University of Brasilia.

“Governments must pay attention to the consequences of Zika for women and their families,” says Ipas Executive Vice President Barbara Crane. “We will be watching closely the outcome of the lawsuit in Brazil.”