Carly Greenfield is a first year International Relations student in the War Studies department at King’s College London. Her main interests center around conflict resolution and corruption, with a special focus on the Americas.
The Zika virus, if it had suddenly spread in a region with responsible reproductive laws and more access to contraception, would never have become an international crisis. The World Health Organization naming it a public health emergency is directly linked to the fact that countries in Latin America are unwilling, and unable, to combat the virus. No deaths have ever been reported due to Zika, which makes an interesting case for why this has been raised to the level of an international health emergency. The real worry is microcephaly, which is a birth defect that leaves the brain below regular development levels and can cause other physical issues like seizures and paralysis. There is a possible connection between a pregnant woman contracting the Zika virus and her child, then, being born with abnormalities— this is the main concern of government and health officials. Latin America’s social and cultural make up have a large part to play in the spread of Zika.
The image above, created by the Center for Reproductive Rights, shows the level of restriction on abortion across the globe. If we focus on the region afflicted with Zika, we see a high level of restrictions:
The region’s laws are backed by the strength of the Roman Catholic Church. Latin America is the biggest Catholic region in the globe and the church holds a great deal of political legitimacy. This is coupled by high levels of poverty across the region, especially in Central America. Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Honduras all have poverty levels around or above 30%, and at least 30% of people live in rural areas. The ruralness of the region makes the lack of reproductive rights and education even more acute: there is a lack of access to contraceptives, like condoms and birth control, along with the improbability of a safe and legal abortion. Even now, the Catholic Church does not approve of the use of condoms to prevent pregnancy and only dropped their official ban in 2010.
The silence of the Catholic Church is especially striking and shows that the region is unlikely to adapt its laws to the current crisis. Pope Francis, being from the region, albeit from a country that has not been afflicted with the virus, is in a special position to address Latin America’s laws and yet has chosen not to do so. Even heavily Catholic nations that are developed, however, do not always have full access to abortion— the Republic of Ireland only allows abortion when the woman’s life is at risk. If the church has not wavered in developed regions, it is unlikely to change a serious pillar of its institution for a single crisis. Along with this, the child is unlikely to die if his or her mother contracts Zika: the church would likely rebuke any idea that supports the abortion of a pregnancy simply because the child would be born with disabilities. This would run directly against mainstream Christian values.
Zika has the chance of becoming an epidemic if women are unable to access safe abortions. Currently, it is estimated that as many as 1.5 million people in Brazil are infected, and symptoms are not always apt to be detected quickly. In El Salvador, a country of 6 million with at least 6,000 infections and counting, there has been the suggestion by the Deputy Health Minister that women should try and not get pregnant for the next two years. This advice is misled and does nothing to solve the issue: women are already pregnant and in contact with the virus and there is no sign of it lessening. Even though the calling for a lift on restrictions has gained some momentum, the heavily religious region is too tied to its Catholic institutions and cultural traditions to react quickly enough or with enough vigor to combat the Zika virus in full. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein has even called for a lift on the restrictions, saying
“[…] The advice of some governments to women to delay getting pregnant, ignores the reality that many women and girls simply cannot exercise control over whether or when or under what circumstances they become pregnant, especially in an environment where sexual violence is so common.”
The Zika virus sheds light on the sociocultural issues that already exist and threaten women in Latin America. While the focus is not on sexual violence, the public’s inability to access adequate health services, or huge flaws in sanitation systems, the virus compounds all of these concerns, making it more threatening than it ever should have been.