Brazil Is Being So Dumb About Zika and Abortion

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A woman in Recife, Brazil, feeds her son, who was born with microcephaly.
A woman in Recife, Brazil, feeds her son, who was born with microcephaly.Photo: Mario Tama

Brazil is the epicenter of the Zika virus outbreak, and as experts try to figure out if the mosquito-borne disease is really what’s causing the concurrent spike in the terrible birth defect microcephaly, its conservative government is scrambling. First, Brazilian health officials told women not to get pregnant for at least six months, then Catholic Church officials helpfully reminded people that contraception is a no-no. (Cool pontifex Pope Francis allowed that contraception might be condoned in this case but said abortion is still an absolute evil. Not helping clear up the confusion!)

Lawmakers are now proposing stricter punishments for women who have abortions in Brazil, where terminating a pregnancy is already illegal except in the cases of rape; when the mother’s life is at risk; or if the fetus has anencephaly, a life-threatening defect where parts of the brain and skull are missing. (That last provision was only legalized in 2012 following a lawsuit.) Currently, women prosecuted for having abortions can face one to three years in prison and doctors who perform the procedure can also be jailed. Time reports that the draft law extends the maximum sentence to 15 years.

The move is a slap in the face to groups like the United Nations, which called on Latin American countries to repeal policies that restrict women’s access to reproductive-health services. It also serves to specifically counter an appeal from the Institute of Bioethics to Brazil’s supreme court to allow women to abort fetuses with microcephaly and give women access to contraceptives and Zika tests. But since microcephaly isn’t usually diagnosed before 24 weeks and sometimes not until the third trimester, the group also wants abortion legalized for any pregnant woman diagnosed with Zika.

But what we do know is that despite Brazil’s ban on terminating pregnancies, about 850,000 women have illegal abortions every year and, in 2013, about 200,000 were hospitalized from complications. This was before Zika. A country that frowns upon birth control and outlaws abortions even in the face of a health crisis will only see more unsafe, illegal procedures.