As the Zika virus rampages through the Americas, the debate surrounding abortion has never been more relevant. The virus spreads from a pregnant woman to her fetus, and is linked to causing a serious birth defect called microcephaly (babies are born with underdeveloped brains). Since Zika first reached the country, the number of microcephaly cases in Brazil has reportedly increased 20-fold .
While South American governments recommend that women abstain from getting pregnant — El Salvador has even gone so far as to recommend an abstention from pregnancy until 2018 — such a response is ridiculous, particularly as contraceptives are hard to access in these states, especially for women in rural or low-income areas (as are women’s rights in general). And women don’t always get to choose to have sex — especially those in Catholic or Evangelical marriages.
So what are women to do?
Recently, the United Nations Human Rights Committee affirmed abortion as a human right, ruling that Peru violated a woman’s civil and political rights by denying her an abortion. In 2001, K.L. was 17 years old when she found out the fetus she was carrying had anencephaly — a certain death sentence for the child and a potential one for her. K.L. was forced to carry the pregnancy to term and watch her baby die four days later.
The Committee ruled that forcing K.L. to give birth under these circumstances was not only cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment — it also violated her right to not be the object of arbitrary or illegal interferences in her private life. Whatever the patriarchy might think, women’s bodies are not public spaces.
And really, that’s what restrictive abortion legislation is. It is total strangers making an enormous decision for you — by not allowing you to choose — based on their personal beliefs enshrined in a patriarchal state.
According to the World Health Organization, 21.6 million women undergo unsafe abortions every year — and 68 000 of those women die. Millions more suffer from preventable complications, many permanent, easily avoided through access to safe medical procedures. South America is among the regions with the highest levels of unsafe abortions performed: more than 30 per 1 000 women (aged 15-44). According to the Guttmacher Institute, 95 per cent of abortions in Latin America were unsafe in 2008.
Making abortion illegal does not decrease the number of abortions performed. It does, however, increase the likelihood of desperate women facing a distinct lack of safe medical services and instead turning towards sharp instruments and unsafe chemicals to do what doctors won’t. Furthermore, it is overwhelmingly young, rural, and low-income women who feel they have no other option than to terminate unwanted pregnancies in life-threatening ways.
What’s worse is that many policy makers around the world want to restrict abortion, but won’t increase funding to feed and educate children, or support single parents or low-income families.
In light of both the rampancy of the Zika virus and the success of the K.L. case, the UN is encouraging states to implement functional abortion laws to provide women some goddamn rights.
The fact of the matter is that people choose abortion for a plethora of reasons — be it due to medical emergencies (such as risk to the mother or fetus) or a myriad of intimately personal reasons that are nobody else’s damn business. If you don’t want an abortion, don’t get one. But forcing a woman to carry an unwanted or doomed pregnancy to term is cruel, inhuman, and degrading.
By setting this landmark legal precedent and affirming the right to choose as a human right, the UN has pushed global, patriarchal society one step closer to acknowledging the necessity of providing legal and safe abortions for all women, preventing needless death and suffering. It will also allow these procedures to be carried out in a timely manner, thus reducing or even eliminating the risk of complications.
Ultimately, it all needs to come down to choice. Not your uterus? Not your decision.