In this Dec. 22, 2015 photo, Angelica Pereira holds Luiza outside their house in Santa Cruz do Capibaribe, Pernambuco state, Brazil. Luiza was born in October with a rare condition, known as microcephaly. The Zika virus, first detected in humans about 40 years ago in Uganda, has long seen as a less-painful cousin to dengue and chikunguya, which are spread by the same Aedes mosquito. Until a few months ago, investigators had no reported evidence it might be related to microcephaly. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

Latin American countries recommend women delay pregnancy, criminalize abortion

In response to an increase in cases of the Zika virus, multiple Latin American countries have issued recommendations that women delay getting pregnant until the outbreak is under control. The mosquito-borne virus is related to similar infections like dengue, yellow fever and West Nile virus, and is linked to microcephaly, which can cause babies to be born with abnormally small heads and severe brain damage. 

Since its first detection in Brazil last year, the Zika virus has spread to 21 other countries, and 4,000 babies have been born with microcephaly. While Latin American health ministries in affected countries advise people to delay pregnancies, not one of them has moved to increase limited access to the reproductive health services that would allow women to do so. “Urging women to avoid pregnancies indefinitely is not a realistic solution to a public health problem; access to family planning information and services plus safe and legal abortion is what women want and need,” Dee Redwine, Latin America Regional Director or Planned Parenthood Global said in a statement.

Take El Salvador, a country infamous for criminalizing abortion and pregnancy, which has recommended that women delay getting pregnant for a full two years. The Salvadoran government has sent dozens of women to prison for attempting abortions or experiencing miscarriages, and denied the procedure to women facing severe health problems related to pregnancy. In 2013, an international campaign took place to demand that Beatriz, a 22 year-old mother, be allowed to end a pregnancy that threatened to take her life. She ultimately underwent a very early cesarean section to deliver a fetus without a brain.

Further south in Brazil, people looking to end pregnancies are placed in a similar bind. Despite relentless work from women’s movements in the country, Brazil bans abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or threat to the woman’s life. Yet Brazilians undergo the procedure at rates comparable to those of the United States, leaving millions of people to seek out unsafe illegal abortions. Today, illegal abortion is the 5th leading cause of death for women in the country.

In addition to the challenges preventing and ending unwanted pregnancies, low-income and rural women in Latin America are left with very few options to protect themselves from the virus itself. In hot and humid climates, mosquitos are difficult to avoid – try leaving all your windows and doors closed during a tropical summer – and though mosquito repellent is becoming more readily available, it remains unaffordable for many.

This outbreak is indicative of a scary pattern we’re sure to see more of with increasing climate change. As the earth gets warmer, summers get longer, and rain patterns shift, mosquitos and other disease-carrying insects are able to remain active for longer, and in wider areas. The health and safety of marginalized communities, particularly poor women of color, are left most vulnerable with each new outbreak, and women will continue to need comprehensive and safe reproductive health care in order to protect themselves. It’s time governments removed barriers and increased access to these life-saving services.

Header image credit: Jezebel

Bay Area, California

Juliana is a digital storyteller for social change. As a writer at Feministing since 2013, her work has focused on women's movements throughout the Americas for environmental justice, immigrant rights, and reproductive justice. In addition to her writing, Juliana is a Senior Campaigner at, where she works to close the gap between the powerful and everyone else by supporting people from across the country to launch, escalate and win their campaigns for justice.

Juliana is a Latina feminist writer and campaigner based in the Bay Area.

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