Tuesday, February 9, 2016 | News

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

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

“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.”

For more information, contact media@ipas.org