In addressing the Zika epidemic, several governments in Latin America made headlines in the past few months when they instructed their female citizens to avoid pregnancy altogether, amounting to what some scholars believe to be historic declarations. In Colombia, women were cautioned to prevent pregnancy for the next six to eight months, while the government of El Salvador — where abortion is illegal — advised women to wait at least two years before trying to conceive. Given the troubling nature of such calls, reflected in the reality that 58 percent of reported pregnancies in Latin America and the Caribbean are unintended, and the fact that some of these countries have among the most restrictive abortion laws in the world, the issue of reproductive justice must be placed at the center of this emerging conversation.
According to Loretta J. Ross, the co-founder and National Coordinator of the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, reproductive justice is “about three interconnected sets of human rights: (1) the right to have children, (2) the right not to have children, and (3) the right to parent the children we have in safe and healthy environments.”
Race and class ultimately shape the fulfillment of these three interconnected human rights. In the case of Zika, poor, rural women are the most affected by the virus, so much so that the Colombian human rights activist Mónica Roa of the women’s rights organization Women’s Link Worldwide reported that she heard someone call Zika “the mosquito of the poor.” Poorer women and women living in the countryside do not readily have as much access to contraceptives, while the more expensive emergency contraceptives are altogether banned in some countries like Honduras. Meanwhile, the poorest sectors of Latin America cannot afford air-conditioned housing like their wealthier counterparts and often live near areas with standing water that functions as breeding grounds for the mosquitos.
“Lost in the panic about Zika is an important fact,” writes Debora Diniz of ANIS: Institute of Bioethics and a law professor at the University of Brasilia. “The epidemic mirrors the social inequality of Brazilian society. It is concentrated among young, poor, black and brown women, a vast majority of them living in the country’s least-developed regions.” Affecting the most disempowered women of Latin American countries, Zika and its associated birth defects have rekindled one of the most controversial issues in a highly devout region of the world: abortion.
In Brazil alone, there are an estimated 1.5 million cases of Zika infections dating from 2014, and more than 4,000 cases of babies born with birth defects, including 500 confirmed cases of microcephaly among those children. And since Zika’s rise in Brazil last May, the virus has moved into more than twenty countries across Latin America and the Caribbean.
Abortion is illegal in Brazil except in cases of rape (when it is permitted up to 20 weeks into the pregnancy), risks to the mother’s life, and anencephaly, a condition whereby a child is born missing parts of brain and skull. Reproductive rights activists in Brazil have since called for the expansion of abortions to include those women infected with Zika, and the feminist Brazilian institute ANIS will be launching a lawsuit before the Brazilian Supreme Court to permit abortions in cases of microcephaly. Unlike Brazil, in Colombian, the the second largest Zika-affected country in Latin America, the government has legalized abortion in three specific instances: rape, risks to a pregnant woman’s physical or mental health, and fetal malformations, which includes microcephaly. Still, despite this relatively less restrictive abortion policy, legal abortions remain rare in Colombia, where 99.9 percent of abortions are carried out illegally (according to a 2011 report by the Guttmacher Institute).
El Salvador: Abortion is illegal, contraception unaffordable and they just banned pregnancy until 2018 coz of Zika https://t.co/iJyWg0HmvM— Neha Srivastava (@neha_aks) February 15, 2016
Among the most restrictive and draconian countries in terms of reproductive policies in Latin America is El Salvador, where abortion is illegal under any and all circumstances. In 2015, 5,400 cases of Zika infections were reported in El Salvador, making the question of abortion that much more pressing and its criminalization that much more alarming. Women in El Salvador can be jailed even if they are suspected of inducing miscarriage or stillbirth. This was the case with an indigenous woman named Mirna Isabel Ramírez who spent twelve and half years behind bars after she gave birth prematurely, raising suspicions of attempted abortion. Ramírez is just one of about 17 women (who are called “Las 17”) in El Salvador who have served or are serving jail time of up to 40 years for their miscarriages, while many others are imprisoned for their abortions. In addition to El Salvador, Nicaragua and Chile prohibit abortions under all circumstances, joining the Vatican and Malta as the only governments in the world that completely outlaw the practice.
A central pillar of a reproductive justice framework is the ability to not have children, a fundamental human right that should be granted to all women everywhere. There is absolutely no question: women who seek abortions will have abortions. About 4.4 million women in Latin America and the Caribbean have abortions each year, of which 95 percent are considered unsafe, while 1 million women are hospitalized because of the unsafe procedures. In fact, Latin American governments might want to take a cue from their own constituencies in legislating their abortion laws. Despite being home to the highest proportion of Catholics in the world, surprisingly about 73 percent of Latin Americans believe that abortions should be allowed in some or all cases, according to an Univision poll taken in 2014.
Give the disproportionate impact that the Zika epidemic has had on poor women of color, restrictions on abortions are not only sexist and undemocratic, but also fundamentally racist and classist.
Yesenia Barragan is a Latina feminist activist and a PhD Candidate in Latin American History at Columbia University.