Will the Zika Virus Increase Reproductive Health Access?

Zika and Brazil’s Abortion Laws

For the past few months the Zika virus has been in the news. What is the Zika virus? According to the World Health Organization (WHO) the virus was first identified in 1947 and is transmitted through mosquitoes. While not fatal, Zika can cause fevers, rash, pain in the joints, and conjunctivitis.

The virus has the most impact on pregnant women as it can cause developmental issues and microcephaly (abnormally small head) in a fetus. Zika has hit certain areas of the world particularly hard, including Brazil. The country went from 150 documented cases per year to potentially thousands being affected. As a result of the stark increase in cases, Brazil is now considering revising its anti-abortion laws to allow women to terminate their pregnancies if they know that their fetus has microcephaly.

Brazil has strict abortion laws, which only permit abortion when it would save the mother’s life, or if the pregnancy is a result of rape. Changing Brazil’s laws to incorporate women whose fetuses have microcephaly would be a significant step towards more abortion access in the state. At the same time it is important to think about the message that, that sends – if the fetus (often considered the most important actor) could be harmed then women can terminate their pregnancies. Yet again, it’s not about the woman, but about the fetus.

As social workers we are thought to think critically about self-determination and social justice. However, in areas with restrictive reproductive health policies, individual rights are neglected. As we think about the Zika virus and the impact it has on women in Brazil, we should also consider why so often women have no say in their reproductive health. It is unfortunate that in order for women to get access to abortion, they must play the state’s game – focus on the impact on the fetus in the hopes that eventually their voices will be heard.

You can learn more about the Zika virus and pregnancy on the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) website.

Anita R. Gooding, LSW

SWRJ Advisory Board Member