UN Demands Latin America Expand Access to Abortion to Fight Zika

Mario Tama/Getty Images
Mario Tama/Getty Images

The UN has demanded Latin American countries give women access to abortions and birth control due to the ongoing Zika virus outbreak in the region.

Governments have advised women to postpone pregnancy for at least two years.

“How can they ask these women not to become pregnant, but not offer … the possibility to stop their pregnancies?” UN Human Rights office spokeswoman Cecile Pouilly asked the media.

Fear of microcephaly or other complications due to Zika have led many women to choose illegal abortions. Doctors indicate women in all social classes are seeking out these abortions “in despair over the possibility of deformity.” Some go through with abortions without concrete proof of complications.

Microcephaly occurs if the brain does not form properly in pregnancy or stops growing after birth, causing a small skull. Children can suffer from seizures, developmental delays, intellectual disability, and feeding problems.

Photo compares a normal sized head to one with microcephaly.

Photo compares a normal sized head to one with microcephaly.

“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,” exclaimed UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein.

However, doctors cannot diagnose microcephaly until the third trimester or after birth:

In many cases, microcephaly may not be evident by ultrasound until the third trimester and, therefore, may not be seen on ultrasounds performed earlier in pregnancy. The diagnosis of microcephaly may be made at birth or later in infancy. The baby’s head circumference is much smaller than normal. During the physical exam, the doctor obtains a complete prenatal and birth history of the child. In older babies and children, the doctor may also ask if there is a family history of microcephaly or other medical problems. Sometimes the child is born with a normal head circumference but then acquires microcephaly because of a serious condition, such as certain genetic disorders, stroke, traumatic injury, or poisoning. The doctor will also ask about developmental milestones since microcephaly can be associated with other problems, such as intellectual disability. Developmental delays may require further medical follow-up for underlying problems.

Doctors have reported 404 cases of microcephaly in newborns since November. They tied seventeen “to the Zika virus.” Fifteen of the 404 died, “with five linked to Zika.” Authorities are investigating 56 other deaths and 3,670 cases.

Journalst Ana Carolina Caceres, 24, survived microcephaly and thrived even though doctors told the family she would never walk or talk.

“When I read a report about the project by the [Brazilian] Supreme Federal Court to allow abortion in microcephaly cases, I took it personally,” she told the BBC. “I felt attacked and offended.”

“I grew up, went to school, graduated, and went to university. Now I am a journalist and write for a blog.”

Gwen Hartley gave birth to two children with microcephaly, but said the girls live normal lives at ages nine and fourteen.

Hartley Microcephaly

“My girls wouldn’t choose to have microcephaly, but I want to reassure parents their children will be so much stronger than they think,” she said.

Hartley urged families with children with microcephaly to connect with others.

“It will be hard, and everyone will have to band together,” she added. “They’ll want to educate themselves on it and a support system is really important. But their children will be the light of their family’s lives.”

During a lecture, virologist Gubio Soares, who first identified the presence of the pervasive Zika virus in Brazil, suggested that legalized abortion in French Polynesia may have prevented scientists from uncovering a link between Zika and severe infant deformities sooner.

Brazil outlawed abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or when the mother’s life is in danger. A judge must approve the case.