Despite urgent demands from global leaders to loosen abortion penalties in Latin American in light of the Zika virus — a mosquito-borne disease that can cause serious birth defects if pregnant women are infected — Brazil lawmakers are moving in the opposite direction.
Instead, conservatives in Brazil are working to increase penalties for women who’ve had an abortion. The deeply-Catholic government is drafting legislation that would sentence women to nearly five years in jail if they abort a fetus with microcephaly — the brain disorder that is directly linked to Zika.
In Brazil, where doctors have seen 4,000 cases of babies born with microcephaly in the past four months, abortion is already illegal — aside from rare 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. Currently, if a woman is found to have had an abortion, she is sentenced to no more than three years in prison. But under this new legislation, if a court found the case to be based on microcephaly, a woman can spend up to four-and-a-half years behind bars. And for doctors that administer the abortion? They could face a 15 year sentence.
Those backing this bill say that the Zika virus has unfairly loosened the country’s acceptance of abortion, and feminist groups are to blame.
“With the crisis that has hit our country, a feminist movement has tried to take advantage to change our abortion laws,” said the bill’s author, Anderson Ferreira, an evangelical member of Brazil’s National Congress who represents the region hit hardest by the Zika virus. “This movement needs to be confronted. Everyone needs to realize the gravity of the crime that is abortion and that it is not acceptable.”
Ferreira’s bill flies in the face of the global conversation about Zika. The virus, which has spread quickly across the Americas, has inspired multiple organizations and international officials to demand a change in the way Latin American countries view abortion.
Two weeks before the release of Brazil’s bill, the United Nations urged countries affected by Zika to lift their heavy-handed restrictions on abortion, saying their governments “ignore the reality that many women and girls simply cannot exercise control over whether or when or under what circumstances they become pregnant.” Shortly after, 31 U.S. Senators called for funds to improve access to reproductive health care and birth control in areas infected by Zika, which was applauded by the international Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR). Zika has even shifted the Pope’s view on the morality of using contraception in affected countries.
There has also been a recent push for change within Brazil itself. Earlier this year, a respected judge in Brazil announced he’ll allow women to end a pregnancy in cases of microcephaly. His controversial statement fell in line with the demands of a Brazil group, led by Portuguese Catholic University’s Institute of Bioethics, that recently announced their plan to send a petition to the county’s Supreme Court requesting to legalize abortions in cases of microcephaly.
“What we have at this moment, in this country, is a group of women who is in fear of getting pregnant and not knowing what will happen during the pregnancy,” said Debora Diniz, founder of the Institute of Bioethics, told the Huffington Post.
Reproductive health advocates fear further crackdown on harsh laws will only increase the number of women dying from illegal abortions and the number of impoverished families burdened with the cost of raising a child with severe brain damage.
But Ferreira’s new bill unfortunately comes as no surprise to groups in Brazil.
“There is no political climate in Brazil to have a debate about abortion,” Diniz told TIME. “Normally when you bring it up, everything else is forgotten.”