Yesterday, the WHO declared Zika a global emergency—but, despite the fact that it’s linked to serious birth defects in babies, women in affected areas still can’t get safe abortions. Dr. Rebecca Gomperts, who runs an abortion-by-mail service, hopes to change that.
Yesterday, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Zika virus outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern,” putting Zika in the same category as Ebola.
As of now, there is no vaccine or medication capable of stopping Zika, which is carried by mosquitos and believed to cause infants to be born with abnormally small heads and underdeveloped brains. According to the WHO, Zika is “spreading explosively,” with more than 20 countries in South and Central America reporting cases. As the Zika outbreak grows increasingly dire, advocates have warned that Latin America’s draconian restrictions surrounding abortion and contraception put women in increased danger of dying from unsafe abortions: While several governments in the region have urged women to avoid getting pregnant until 2018, abortion remains severely restricted or illegal in nearly every Latin American nation. Several countries currently have bans so harsh that they forbid abortion even in cases of rape, incest, or fetal abnormality.
This bizarre paradox—in which women are cautioned to avoid getting pregnant but denied the option of ending an unplanned, unwanted, potentially dangerous pregnancy—leaves women with tragically limited options. In many of these countries, a woman infected with Zika who becomes pregnant can do one of two things: She can either face a significantly increased chance of giving birth to a child with a serious birth defect, or she can resort to an unsafe and illegal method of terminating her pregnancy. In Brazil, before the Zika outbreak began, between 800,000 and one million women obtained illegal abortions per year. That number will likely increase in the wake of Zika’s spread.
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