Zika, a mosquito-borne illness currently spreading rapidly across the Americas, has been linked to a fetal neurological disorder called microcephaly. In response, a slew of Latin American countries have recently encouraged women to hold off getting pregnant to keep the virus from affecting their unborn children.
“The advice of some governments to women to delay getting pregnant, ignores the reality that many women and girls simply cannot exercise control over whether or when or under what circumstances they become pregnant, especially in an environment where sexual violence is so common,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein in a Friday statement.
To those following the UN’s involvement in international abortion rights policy, this comes as no surprise. UN officials have consistently urged countries to lift restrictive bans on abortion, declaring that they breach human rights treaties.
The UN’s announcement comes a day after a judge in Brazil went against the country’s mainstream abortion policy by announcing he’ll allow women to end a pregnancy in cases of microcephaly.
Abortions are currently outlawed in Brazil, except for cases of rape, anencephaly (a more extreme version of microcephaly, where a baby often dies in infancy), or when the mother’s life is in danger. Some conservative lawmakers have even pushed to further regulate these exceptions.
“I know this is very difficult because the subject is new, requires thorough discussion, and a great deal of religious influences persists,” said Judge Coelho de Alcântara. “But my position is that abortion for microcephaly should be allowed.”
This is exactly the reaction that international women’s health advocates have been hoping for — but believed would be a long shot. Conservative Latin American governments have historically suppressed any efforts to lift or loosen abortion bans — that is, until now.
“The fears over the Zika virus are giving us a rare opening to challenge the religious fundamentalists who put the lives of thousands of women at risk in Brazil each year to maintain laws belonging in the dark ages,” Silvia Camurça, a director of SOS Corpo, a feminist group in Brazil, told the New York Times.
In the rare Zika-affected country that does offer legal abortion, women are still up against unnecessary hurdles. In Colombia, for instance, it’s already legal to abort a fetus that has life-threatening malformations, like microcephaly, but few women know it’s an option and few doctors will actually agree to do the procedure.
The UN aims to lift these frustrating barriers.
“Health services must be delivered in a way that ensures a woman’s fully informed consent, respects her dignity, guarantees her privacy, and is responsive to her needs and perspectives,” the commissioner concluded. “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.”