The Zika virus outbreak across Central and South America is bringing to light draconian reproduction laws in those countries. Heavily influenced by Catholic doctrine, the laws forbid most forms of birth control, and abortion in almost all cases. Some countries allow for abortion in rare cases of maternal health risks, but they are hard to get even when technically allowed
These laws have been in place for years, curtailing the lives and freedoms of people with wombs. In the absence of reliable hormonal or implanted birth control, permanent sterilization is much more common in these nations. In El Salvador, for example, about 35% of women seek surgical sterilization.
There have been a few high-profile cases over the past several years, of girls, children, impregnated by rape and forced to carry to term. Neither domestic nor international outrage at this senseless cruelty had the force to inspire change in government or Church stance on the matter. But with the likely-but-unproven causal link between Zika virus and infants born with microcephaly, that looks to be changing.
A judge in Brazil has stated he will approve abortions for Zika-affected pregnancies. The Catholic Church and its agents have been slow to weigh in, but many Catholic theologians have speculated this could be a turning point.
Why the change of heart? Microcephaly is a condition where babies are born with smaller than average skulls, which may impact facial bone structure. It is accompanied by physical and cognitive impairments ranging from mild to severe. Children and adults with microcephaly may need a greater level of care than their peers, or more medical treatment.
Exposure to Zika virus during the fetal stage may be a cause of microcephaly, but even if so, it is not the only one. Microcephaly has been caused by malnutrition or diabetes in pregnancy, exposure to viral infection such as rubella in pregnancy, and certain chromosomal disorders like Down Syndrome. Rates of microcephaly in the United States are very low; the sudden increase in cases down south points to Zika.
Microcephaly is a disability. I’d still pick it over incurable childhood cancer, as a mother, but we don’t really get a say in these matters. My tendency to compare illnesses and impairments with each other instead of with health and ability changes my perspective on the matter. Microcephaly is serious, but it’s not the end of the world.
Of course, poverty and rural living can both greatly complicate caring for a disabled child, making it impossible in some cases. A child with many medical needs born to a family struggling to get by will have a poorer prognosis than a child with the same condition born into affluence. Each pregnancy should be decided on its own merits, by the pregnant person.
The public response to this particular reason someone might choose to terminate their pregnancy has been louder and largely different from the silence around the everyday suffering of poor or sick women who simply want birth control. This tells me it’s because babies with microcephaly make us squeamish.
The women (etc) of Central and South America need birth control and abortion rights, not because infant disability is the worst thing in the world, not because we’re uncomfortable looking at babies with microcephaly, but because it is their own human right to determine the course of pregnancies their bodies go through.