Brazil, Zika, Microcephaly, and Abortion
With cases of Zika virus in pregnant mothers being linked to microcephaly and fatal birth defects, many Brazilians are taking a closer look at the restrictive abortion laws in the country. Currently, getting an abortion is illegal in Brazil unless a mother’s life is put at risk through the continuation of the pregnancy, the mother was raped and this is a resultant pregnancy, or if the fetus is found to be brain-dead prior to birth. Being found guilty of an illegal abortion under these laws can result in one to three years of prison time. One exception to the brain-death allowance for abortion has already been made with anencephaly being considered an acceptable justification for abortion.
Some Catholic leaders are seeking stricter abortion laws. They are proposing measures that would increase prison sentences to a maximum of 15 years, make it illegal to encourage or assist a pregnant woman to have an abortion, or require both a forensic medical exam and a formal police report for all rape-related exceptions to the anti-abortion law. The push for more restrictive laws seems to stem from religious beliefs. Pope Francis has been more accepting of birth control measures but is adamant about the unacceptable nature of abortion. The Pope is quoted as calling abortion, “a crime, an absolute evil.” Members of the Brazilian government have also been quoted as claiming aborting microcephalitic fetuses would constitute an act of eugenics.
It is important to note that microcephaly is not universally fatal and not always diagnosed prior to abortion. There is an increasing consideration of abortion in Brazil, attributed to the fear cause by the rise of Zika in Latin America. This fear is compounded by the fact that Zika is often hard to diagnose due to its occasionally asymptomatic prognosis.
Other movements in Brazil are seeking greater freedom for abortion in possible Zika cases. These movements cite the lack of adequate access to sexual education and contraceptives as a barrier to following the government’s recommended process for dealing with Zika-related birth defects. Brazil’s government has pushed a message of waiting to get pregnant until the virus has been controlled. At least one judge has said he recognizes this movement and will rule abortion due to confirmed microcephaly of the fetus to be acceptable under the same exception made for anencephaly, despite the difference in life expectancies. Anencephaly is almost universally fatal at the fetal stage whereas up to 90% of microcephaly cases result in no mental deficits.
Future shifts in Zika infection rates may encourage change in Brazilian abortion policy. It is not yet clear whether that change will result in more relaxed or tighter control over abortions in Brazil.
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