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Zika virus sparks abortion debate in Brazil.

By Adriana Brasileiro, Rio de Janeiro.

The Zika virus has triggered a renewed debate about abortion in Brazil.

Activists believe women must be allowed to legally have abortions in cases where the baby is diagnosed with microcephaly, a condition linked to the virus.

Guacira de Oliveira, a sociologist at CFEMEA, a leading feminist organisation in the capital, Brasília, said a spike in abortions was inevitable.

She said the panic unleashed by the potential global epidemic of the mosquito-borne Zika virus, which has been blamed for hundreds of cases of babies born with abnormally small heads and brain damage, will push more Brazilian women into unsafe, illegal abortions.

“The right to a safe abortion must be seen as a matter of public health, now more than ever,” Ms de Oliveira said.

“This is a global emergency and Brazil must stop treating women who want to have abortions as if they were criminals.”

Abortion is considered a crime in Brazil and is only permitted when a pregnancy is the result of a rape, in cases where the expectant mother’s life is at risk or when the fetus is anacephalic. In the last circumstance, part or all of the cerebral hemispheres and the rear of the skull are absent.

Because of the current restrictive legislation, about one million Brazilian women go to clandestine clinics annually to illegally end unwanted pregnancies, often under dangerous conditions and at the hands of charlatans, according to women’s rights groups.

Complications from unsafe abortions are the fifth leading cause of maternal deaths in Brazil, killing almost three women for every 100,000 live births, according to data from Brazil’s Health Ministry.

The National Abortion Survey, a 2010 study by the University of Brasília, found that one in every five Brazilian women had at least one illegal abortion by the time they were 40.

Doctors have now warned that abortion numbers are set to rise as pregnant women who are infected with Zika decide not to take chances.

Conservative parliament making abortion push difficult.

Andrea, an obstetrician from João Pessoa, the capital of Paraiba state in Brazil’s north-eastern region, said three of her patients who had Zika sought advice on how to end the pregnancies in the past two weeks.

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She asked for her last name not to be published for fear of being accused of criminal activity.

The north-eastern area of Brazil has seen the bulk of the Zika virus cases.

A group of lawyers and activists are currently writing a proposal to the nation’s Supreme Court asking for the legalisation of abortion in cases where the baby has microcephaly, according to ANIS, a women’s rights NGO spearheading the campaign.

But they have a battle on their hands, with the conservative forces in the national Congress currently working to make abortion even more difficult for Brazilian women.

Elected in 2014, Brazil’s national parliament is the most conservative since 1964. That is partially the result of religious groups, mainly representing evangelical churches, making considerable political ground. About 65 per cent of the population is nominally Catholic.

As the number of babies with microcephaly rises and Zika travels across Latin America, the World Health Organisation has declared the outbreak, spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, a global emergency.

It is estimated the virus could infect up to 4 million people this year. A definitive link between Zika and brain damage in newborns has not been proven, but the thousands of cases of babies with brain defects in areas hit by Zika has mobilized international researchers.

More than 3,700 cases of the rare congenital brain condition have been reported in Brazil since November, according to the country’s Health Ministry.

In recent weeks the fight against the Aedes aegypti mosquito has been stepped up by Brazil, which enlisted 220,000 army troops to search for breeding areas.

This post originally appeared on ABC News.

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