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Fear over the Zika virus is reigniting a fierce debate over Brazil’s abortion laws, where the procedure is illegal under most circumstances.
On Friday, Brazil’s bishops declared their opposition to a petition to the Supreme Court seeking to expand the nation’s abortions laws to cover women infected by the virus.
Abortion is illegal in Brazil except in three cases – rape or incest, if it endangers the woman’s life, or if the fetus is developing anencephaly, a rare condition where the baby is missing parts of its brain and skull.
Although the symptoms of Zika are mostly mild to moderate - fever, skin rash and conjunctivitis – the virus can have serious consequences for pregnant women. The disease is strongly suspected of causing a severe birth defect called microcephaly, which causes the underdevelopment of the head and brain. Babies with microcephaly often miscarry before they are born, or they die at birth. Those who survive are usually very disabled.
Brazil’s ministry of health says it is investigating 3,670 reported cases of microcephaly. So far 404 cases have been confirmed, out of which only 17 are related to the Zika virus.
In its statement, the National Conference of Bishops said that “we should not give in to panic, or act as if we were in a situation that, despite its gravity, is not invincible.”
“Nor does [the situation] justify advocating abortion for cases of microcephaly," stated the Bishops.
The mosquito-transmitted disease has spread to more than 25 countries and territories in the Americas. As a result, several Latin American governments including Brazil are urging women not to get pregnant for up to two years.
For groups seeking a change to current abortion laws, the governments' advice to avoid pregnancy is not enough.
“This [government] declaration obviously cannot be taken as a serious guideline for public policy,” said Debora Diniz, an anthropologist and professor at the University of Brasilia, and one of the leaders of the pro-abortion petition. “There are no appropriate policies for family planning in the country, no regular access to contraception, no right to abort,” she said.
Diniz is working with a group of lawyers, educators and activists on the court petition that wants the Brazilian government to provide all pregnant women with access to Zika virus testing.
In case of a positive result, a woman would be referred to pre-natal care for high-risk pregnant women if she wishes to continue the pregnancy. The petition is also asking that women infected with the virus be given the right to choose whether or not they wish to continue their pregnancy.
“Women do not have their sexual and reproductive rights guaranteed to confront this epidemic. That is the discussion that is going on right now,” Diniz said.