Women's Rights

Could Zika prompt legislative change regarding reproductive rights for women in Latin America?

Emily Dillistone

Over the past year the Zika virus has swept across the world, affecting countries in Africa and Asia, and since 2015, the Americas. The Zika virus is spread predominantly by mosquitos, though a recent case in Utah suggests that the virus may also be contagious, given a son caught the virus from his father in hospital. Of particular concern is the effects the virus has on babies born to mothers who carry the virus; it causes microcephaly and Guillain-Barré syndrome in new-borns, leading to the babies developing smaller-than-usual heads. They need constant care: something difficult for many women to give. These effects would be easy to prevent, if it weren’t for the strict anti-birth control and anti-abortion policies that Latin American countries so vehemently maintain.

In reaction to the rise of birth defects in Latin America, the United Nations has urged the continent to relax their laws; however, this advice has thus far fallen on deaf ears. Latin America’s issue with women’s reproductive rights harks back to Spanish and Portuguese invasions and the introduction of the Catholic faith to the people of the continent. The Catholic Church is an institution that overrides much of today’s social movements and has held immense political power over states worldwide since it was instigated as the state religion of the Roman Empire in 380 AD. Yet it would be a mistake to believe that the only pressure to limit access to abortion comes from the Vatican; in 1984, President Reagan’s Global Gag Rule prohibited international organizations that benefitted from US funds from performing or even recommending the practice of abortion. The issue of reproductive rights in Latin America is far more complex than it seems from the surface.

Condoms and birth control pills are a rarity in Roman Catholic Latin America. In Venezuela, pharmacies sell a pack of three condoms for around 600 bolivars – the equivalent of around 80p – but they are rarely stocked, and soon become expensive for those earning the minimum wage of 33,000 bolivars per month. In Brazil, for example, it is often only wealthy middle-class women who use birth control. Emergency contraception has been banned in Honduras since 2009, and in Costa Rica and Peru the public sector has very limited access to these drugs. As with any legislative change, social attitudes are often the main factor holding it back. In Uruguay, where abortion laws are more relaxed, only 5% of people think contraception is morally wrong, whereas in El Salvador, where abortion is forbidden in all circumstances, the figure rises to 45%.

Many countries in Latin America have placed restrictions around birth control and access to abortion. Across Central and South America abortion is legal in only Uruguay, Guyana, and French Guiana. Often, abortion is illegal with the exception of rape or incest, or when the mother’s life is in danger. In the case of El Salvador, abortion is prohibited altogether. Women who attempt to self-abort can spend up to 40 years in prison, even if their own life is at risk.

Why is it that birth control remains such a taboo topic, and why is it such a focus in the feminist movement? Many so-called ‘pro-life’ campaigners in the United States have come under fire for their unmoving resistance to abortion while they uphold the American citizen’s right to bear arms and fail to support movements that give aid to children who have left the womb such as refugees and victims of parental abuse. The question of what constitutes human life and thus deserving of equal rights is one that has plagued much of history. Reproductive rights bring to the fore the legal status of two types of beings: women and unborn foetuses. In the United Kingdom, the rights of the born are given precedence over the rights of the unborn, whereas in Latin America the reverse is very often the case; multiple court decisions have granted personhood to fertilized eggs. There are many who argue that human life is defined as an animate independent being. If we were to take this definition, foetuses are quite simply ruled out of the equation.

The truth is, denying women access to birth control and safe abortion and thereby forcing them to carry to term unwanted pregnancies often denies them other human rights: the right to safety, the right to work, and, in some cases, the right to life. According to the findings of the World Health Organization in 2015, around 830 women die every day from pregnancy-related causes. Most cases are preventable, but due to poor medical services women do not receive the treatment they need, hence 99% of all maternal deaths occur in developing countries. According to the WHO, Venezuela’s maternal mortality rate was 95 per 100,000 live births in 2015, one of the worst rates in Latin America.

Moreover, it is the high rate of teenage pregnancy that poses such a threat to women. In Latin America, 38% of women become pregnant before the age of 20 and almost 20% of births are to teenage mothers. Research shows that the risk of complications during pregnancy and delivery for girls aged 15 to 19 is twice what it is for women aged 20 and older. Many girls die simply because their bodies are unable to carry a child to full term.

The reality is that banning something doesn’t stop it from happening. For example, in 2011 4.2 million unsafe abortions were carried out in Latin America. In Argentina 31% of maternity deaths are caused by unsafe abortions and worldwide, nearly one million women are hospitalized each year because of complications from unsafe abortion. The question of prohibition is similar to that of A-class drugs: they may be against the law and, having been driven underground, have a higher risk of fatality, but people will still do them.

The Zika virus has presented Latin America with a new national crisis. Pregnancy no longer just threatens the mother’s life during pregnancy, but also potentially after birth. If the baby is born with defects and requires constant care, mothers become unable to provide for the rest of their family. Lines for food in developing countries such as Venezuela are often a day long, and mothers have to bring their babies with them to wait, leading to their babies getting sunburnt. Venezuela’s ‘pro-family’ attitude has crumpled in economic crisis. Increasingly, women are attending ‘sterilization days’ in order to avoid future pregnancies. While last year places at centres offering sterilization were often left unfilled, some ‘sterilization days’ now have waiting lists of 500, according to Reuters. The increase in cases of sterilization is worrying; but rather than viewing these acts as an assertion of agency and liberation, perhaps one should see them as acts of desperate women.

Archbishop of Merida, Baltazar Porras, told Reuters an increase in sterilizations would be a “barbarity.” And yet, it is not as if these women have a choice. Amnesty International estimates that more than 50% of the pregnancies in Venezuela are unplanned, and it is likely that neighbouring countries carry a similar figure. Sexual violence is abundant in Latin America and often goes unreported. Half of women in Latin American cities have been a victim of sexual assault in their lifetime, up from 1 in 3 in 2012, according to the Pan American Health Organization. And these are only the reported cases. In Columbia, for example, only 14% of domestic violence survivors report the crime.

Despite the UN’s plea to introduce safe abortion in countries where the Zika virus is prevalent, Latin American governments remain stern-faced. The advice of Brazil, El Salvador, Columbia, and Ecuador government officials to women of their countries is simply to “not get pregnant”. Eduardo Espinoza has declared that the government will have to uphold the anti-abortion laws, “whether we like it or not.” The only case where the Zika virus has prompted legislative change is in 2012 in Brazil, where the country’s Supreme Court ruled that anencephaly is a justifiable condition for terminating a pregnancy. Perhaps other countries will follow suit, but it has been four years, and thus far does not look promising. If anything, governments are leaning the other way. Government officials have proposed laws requiring medical examinations of rape victims to prove the legitimacy of their claims and have also suggested that women who were suspected of self-aborting should be examined. Fortunately, these laws were not introduced.

Women’s rights around the world are in an ever more dizzying perpetual state of fluctuation. While women in Brazil fight for protection against sexual violence, in Venezuela women plead for birth control. While in Afghanistan women campaign for the vote, in Indonesia women are required to have virginity tests before entering the public services. Women’s rights movements are arguably very much behind in Latin America, where women’s primary concern is often simply a struggle for survival. We have seen in recent years a movement towards recognising women as citizens deserving equal rights. In Brazil the first women’s rights organizations were formed in the 1980s, yet it was only in 2004 that the Plano Nacional para Saude da Mulher (The National Plan for Women’s Health) was created for women’s sexual and reproductive rights. Similarly, only in 2012 did Costa Rica introduce a national sexual health education program that incorporates human rights, gender equality, and the importance of diversity and pleasure. In Venezuela, between 1999 and 2013 President Chavez built thousands of new health centres in poor neighbourhoods and launched maternity health programs. However, current President Maduro has since cancelled many of his predecessor’s programs in light of the economic crisis and decreased oil prices. Though his government claims that it has one of the best health systems in the world, the state has not released any recent health data to support this.

One can only conclude that the Zika virus, though somewhat enlightening the rest of the world to Latin America’s poverty and high rate of maternity mortalities, has not as of yet prompted much legislative change in support of women’s reproductive rights. Birth control remains expensive and largely inaccessible, while abortion is increasingly difficult to obtain and the women seeking it are viewed more often as criminals than they are victims of sexual violence, which is often the case. International pressure is twofold; Latin America is pressured by the Vatican to maintain their control over women’s reproductive rights in the name of faith, while the UN urges the continent to prevent the spread of the Zika virus and the defects in new-borns that come with it. One might say that Latin America’s reluctance to increase the reproductive rights of its women is literally disabling its women and children. Alternatively, one could argue that it is the state of poverty of Latin America and the subsequent lack of medical resources that lead to the high mortality rate and should instead constitute the focus of international intervention, if there is to be any. The Zika virus is, in reality, a short-term issue that has brought to light many of Latin America’s deep-seated economic and social problems that will not be resolved by temporary law changes.