A study published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine finds that a website offering clandestine abortion pills and help finding illegal abortion sources in Latin America has seen a surge in demand for their services as the Zika virus outbreak spreads through the region.
The website Women on Web, which discreetly provides abortion pills and information on abortion providers in areas with strong pro-life laws recorded an 108% spike in the number of people in Brazil, the epicenter of the Zika epidemic, requesting their aid in terminating a pregnancy, and the same number in Ecuador. Other Latin American nations saw an increase of a third in interest in Women on Web’s services.
“There were huge increases in abortions across the region,” researcher Dr. Catherine Aiken told the BBC. Aiken criticized nations like Brazil, El Salvador, and Colombia where governments warned couples to avoid pregnancy while keeping pro-life laws intact, alleging the suggestion to delay pregnancies caused “fear, anxiety and panic with no means to act on it.”
In an announcement of the new study’s publication by Princeton, where the researchers conducted their study, co-author James Trussell argued that the study should push governments to consider expanding legal access to abortions. “Zika will inevitably spread to other countries where safe abortion is restricted,” he said, “Therefore, we must ensure that all reproductive choices are safe, legal and accessible. To do otherwise would be irresponsible public health practice and unjust policy.”
In Brazil, where over 3,000 infants have been born with the brain deformity microcephaly – which scientists have affirmatively linked to the Zika virus – abortions are only legal if approved by a judge. Some judges have stated publicly that they consider Zika infection a valid reason to grant a woman an abortion, though this is not universal.
Reports have indicated that, as early as February, Brazil has experienced a surge in interest in illegal abortions in women who may have been exposed to the Zika virus. That same month, the CDC confirmed that two women in the United States terminated their pregnancies out of fear of Zika-related brain damage.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have found the odds of having a baby born with Zika-related deformities are about one to fifteen for every 100 births, though many affected children do not make it to term.
Fox News notes the study has “major limitations” – mainly, that it looked only at one abortion website’s change in traffic and requests. “The research does not answer how many abortions actually occurred in those countries,” Fox adds. Nonetheless, due to the clandestine nature of many abortions in Latin America, this is the closest to an accurate representation of interest in abortions in the region, researchers argue.
Abortion activists have used the Zika epidemic in Latin America to promote widespread access to abortion. In February, Planned Parenthood International published a webpage asking for donations to help promote abortion in Latin America. “In a region where many women have limited or no access to birth control and 6 countries ban abortion under all circumstances, the stakes are high,” the website read. “Make your emergency gift today to help IPPF/WHR and our local partners empower women with the family planning resources and quality, non-judgmental care they need to make empowered, informed choices during this crisis.”
Leftist columnists added their voices to the pro-abortion push. “It is essential to recognize that women and men have the right to make decisions and existential options and one of the most important choices in the life of a woman is to have children or not,” sociologist Jacqueline Pitanguy wrote in Brazilian newspaper O Globo.
Pro-life advocates have come out against the international push to promote abortion in the region. “It is shameful that the abortion industry is trying to capitalize on a health crisis by pushing abortion rather than addressing the actual cause of a real problem,” Americans United for Life President and CEO Dr. Charmaine Yoest told Breitbart News in February. Ana Carolina Caceres, a Brazilian journalist who suffers from microcephaly, wrote that the calls for abortion affected her “personally,” and she felt “attacked and offended.”
To some extent, statistics show the pro-abortion campaign has been successful. A May World Health Organization study found that the number of women terminating pregnancies in Latin America surged from 40 to 44 per every thousand pregnancies between 1990 and the present. Between 2010 and 2014, Latin America experienced a 32 percent increase in the number of documented abortions.
Scholars have suggested that legalized abortion in nations where Zika has struck before prevented doctors for being able to attribute an increase in birth deformities to the virus. Before the current Latin American outbreak, Zika struck in French Polynesia, where abortion is legal. The government did not document a surge in cases of microcephaly, but Gubio Soares, the researcher who first observed a link between the condition and Zika, suggests the government should study abortion rates there during the Zika outbreak, particularly if there is documented evidence of abortions prompted by neurological defects identified in utero.