Toronto Star's View: Poor women should not carry...
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Feb 14, 2016  |  Vote 0    0

Toronto Star's View: Poor women should not carry the burden of the Zika virus

The Zika virus is associated with devastating birth defects. Pregnant women who have the disease should have access to an early legal abortion if they so desire

OurWindsor.Ca

It’s a daunting dilemma.

Millions of women in Latin American countries where the Zika virus has broken out are being told not to get pregnant for anywhere from months to years as health authorities try to contain the mosquito-borne disease, which is associated with severe birth defects.

But those warnings ignore the fact that most pregnancies in the region are unplanned, poor women in these countries have little access to birth control, and many lack control over their own fertility because of a high rate of sexual violence. Nor, for the most part, do they have access to abortions if they find out they have the Zika virus when they are pregnant.

Hence an urgent call from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights for countries in the region to repeal policies that break with international standards on access to sexual and reproductive health services, including abortion.

Their request should be quickly heeded.

The World Health Organization says the most recent outbreak of the disease, which was diagnosed in Brazil last April, has now spread to 26 countries in the Americas. Experts expect it will infect as many as 4 million people during the next year.

While the disease itself is mild, the devastating birth defects it is associated with include eye damage that can render a baby blind, a neurological condition called Guillain-Barre Syndrome, and a devastating birth defect called microcephaly, in which babies are born with undersized heads.

Understandably, that is enough to make many pregnant women panic. And many women infected with the virus are not waiting for abortion laws to be changed but are seeking out illegal abortions, according to one health official in Rio de Janeiro. (In Brazil, abortion is allowed only if the woman has been raped, her life is in danger or the fetus has anencephaly, where part of its brain or skull is missing.)

That’s bad news in a country where an estimated 850,000 women already undergo illegal abortions under dangerous conditions every year. Human Rights Watch reports that illegal abortions resulted in 250,000 emergency room visits for treatment for complications in 2009 alone.

In the end, the solution is not to tell women in these countries not to get pregnant, or even giving infected women access to abortions. It’s eradicating the conditions that allow the mosquitoes that carry the disease to flourish, including sewage running in ditches and stagnant pools of water in poor areas.

But in the meantime, the consequences of the disease must not be borne by poor women in Brazil and other countries where outbreaks have occurred.

Health authorities must get birth control out to these women, governments must ease restrictions on abortions, and the conditions that allow for the mosquitoes to flourish must be cleaned up.

Toronto Star

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