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  • Colombian women listen as a health worker distributes information how to prevent the spread of the Zika virus, at the transport terminal in Bogota, Colombia January 31, 2016.

    Colombian women listen as a health worker distributes information how to prevent the spread of the Zika virus, at the transport terminal in Bogota, Colombia January 31, 2016. | Photo: Reuters

Published 6 February 2016

A woman struggled to find a doctor willing to provide an abortion after it was discovered her fetus suffered from microcephaly.

Semana magazine revealed Thursday what it believed to be the first case of a woman who sought an abortion over fetal malformations possibly caused by a Zika virus infection. 

The alleged link between the Zika virus and fetal health issues, specifically microcephaly — a brain defect that causes abnormally small heads in newborns — has opened a debate throughout Latin America regarding the availability and legality of abortions. Throughout much of the region, abortion is heavily restricted or illegal. 

In Colombia a fetus may only be aborted when the pregnancy threatens the life or health of the mother, when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, and when there is the existence of life-threatening fetal malformations.

It is that last condition that allowed the woman revealed in Semana's story to be granted a late-term abortion at 32 weeks. 

However she struggled to find a doctor willing to provide the medical procedure.

The woman, given the pseudonym of Johana Martinez, was finally granted her request for an abortion on Wednesday after multiple doctors denied her request due to conscientious objection.

The fetus' microcephaly was not discovered until late into her pregnancy, as early tests and exams indicated a normal pregnancy. 

Doctors refused to grant the abortion on the grounds that despite the presence of microcephaly, the fetus could live. 

The link between Zika and microcephaly has not been definitively proven but evidence strongly suggests a connection. In Martinez's case, when she fell ill during her pregnancy, doctors first believed she was suffering from dengue, as the two viruses present similar symptoms. 

Martinez's case serves to highlight the need for greater awareness of Zika and the need to screen for the virus early during a pregnancy in order to avoid the complications of having to find a doctor willing to perform a late-term abortion. 

However, abortion laws vary greatly throughout the region and even early detection would not allow for an abortion to be provided in countries, such as El Salvador, where an abortion is illegal in every instance. 

The top U.N. human rights official has called for countries with the Zika virus to make sexual and reproductive health counseling available to women and to uphold their right to terminate pregnancies.

"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," U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said in a statement Friday.

Women in some countries in Latin American have been told to avoid pregnancy.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently directed men to take certain precautions including abstaining from sex with pregnant partners if they have traveled to an area affected by the mosquito-borne disease.

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