Zika, a virus transmitted to people through mosquito bites, specifically from the Aedes aegypto mosquito, is rapidly spreading in Latin America and the Caribbean. Doctors have observed a link between these bites and a rare congenital birth defect called microcephaly, where a baby’s brain did not properly develop or stopped growing which causes a small head. However, science has not conclusively proven the link between the defect and Zika. Much is unknown about the virus, and there is still no vaccine. In Brazil, where the virus originated in May 2015, more than a million people caught the Zika virus and 4,000 mothers have given birth to children with microcephaly. Since then, many countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have battled active mosquito transmission of the Zika virus. As a result, countries in the affected region have recommended that women delay their pregnancies. El Salvador has asked women to delay their pregnancies until 2018, and Columbia and Ecuador have asked women to delay their pregnancies for several months or until scientists conduct more research.
Latin American governments’ approach to the epidemic has resulted in much backlash. Most recently, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, criticized the approach of these countries by highlighting that the discussion about men’s role in pregnancy has been virtually non-existent. Zeid stated that many women in these countries cannot control when they get pregnant because sexual violence is so prevalent. Others point out that governments are not instructing men to prevent pregnancies, as they have an equal role in preventing pregnancies. Another factor is that many Latin American and Caribbean countries outlaw abortion. The region is predominantly Catholic, and five of the seven countries ban abortions under all circumstances. These seven countries are El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Chile, the Dominican Republic, Malta, and Vatican City. Although illegal, women still have abortions. According to the Guttmacher Institute, in 2008, 4.4. million women in Latin America and the Caribbean had abortions and ninety-five percent were unsafe because doctors lacked proper training and conducted them in an environment that did not meet adequate medical standards. Rights groups are concerned that the spread of Zika in Latin America will cause a rise in unsafe abortions. An additional concern is that women do not have readily available access to contraceptives and information on preventing pregnancies.
In light of the growing concerns about the Zika virus, abortion activists are pushing for governments in Latin America and the Caribbean to legalize abortion and allow for better access to contraceptives. Many believe women have reproductive rights which should guarantee them access to safe abortions, contraceptives, and women’s healthcare. Activists point to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which is binding on all United Nations members including the Latin American and Caribbean countries affected by Zika. Specifically, Article 3 sets out the fundamental right to life, liberty, and security; Article 5, the right to be free from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment; Article 25, the right to adequate health; and Article 27, the right to the enjoyment and benefits of scientific progress. However, there is no fundamental human right that explicitly grants women the right to an abortion or access to contraceptives. Many believe that abortion is a short-sighted solution and countries should focus efforts on educating people about how the infection is transmitted, mobilizing resources to fumigate areas of mosquitoes, counseling and supporting families, and offering treatment to children who have the neurological disease. In effort to curb the spread of Zika, experts believe that Latin American and Caribbean countries should explore all options in order to meet the needs of their citizens and uphold human rights principles.