Healthy Living

Meet The Woman Fighting For Abortion Rights During Brazil's Zika Crisis

The Brazilian government was negligent and now poor women are paying the price, says Debora Diniz.
02/04/2016 04:33pm ET
CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP/Getty Images
Brazilian women demonstrate in favor of abort legalization and against the president of the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies, Eduardo Cunha, in Rio de Janeiro downtown on November 11, 2015.

The apparent relationship between the Zika virus pandemic in Brazil and the country's rise in cases of the birth defect microcephaly is pushing Brazilian women to resort to abortions -- a procedure that is illegal in Brazil except in cases of rape, anencephaly, or risk to the mother’s life.

Brazilian newspaper Folha de S.Paulo reported that ever since the confirmation of the Zika outbreak, women have been increasingly resorting to Misoprostol, or Cytotec, a drug that induces labor and may cause abortions. They fear that their babies may be born with microcephaly, a congenital condition in which a child is born with a small head and a brain that isn't fully developed.

Brazil’s Ministry of Health said last week that there have been 404 confirmed cases of microcephaly to date and another 3,670 suspected cases.

Scientists have not confirmed a causal link between Zika virus infections and microcephaly. Nor do they know if a woman needs to experience symptoms for her fetus to be at risk of microcephaly (an important question, as about 80 percent of those infected don’t even know they have Zika). But health officials and experts strongly suspect that the virus can cause birth defects in babies. Out of an abundance of caution, the World Health Organization advises pregnant women to follow the strictest mosquito bite prevention protocol, which includes wearing long sleeves and pants, using mosquito repellent and avoiding outdoor activities.

The nonprofit advocacy organization Anis: Institute of Bioethics, Human Rights and Gender is one of several groups collaborating on a petition to Brazil’s Supreme Court to loosen restrictions on abortion. Its co-founder, anthropologist and law professor Debora Diniz, told HuffPost Brasil that the crisis the country is currently facing can be traced back to state negligence with regards to combatting the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which is capable of transmitting Zika virus along with dengue, chikungunya, and yellow fever. She also noted that the women most at risk come from the country's poorest regions.

HuffPost Brasil spoke with Diniz about her work and what she thinks should happen next in the fight against this epidemic.

What is your assessment of the spread of Zika virus?

We have a national epidemic on our hands. But, even though it has spread across the country, it is concentrated in the Northeastern region of the country and is affecting poor women who find it more difficult to access legal abortions and proper healthcare.

The most painful part is that even the Health Minister, Marcelo Castro, has said that we have lost the war. We have to make him understand that we must fight to win.

Do you think the government was negligent?

What we are witnessing is a delayed result of the Brazilian Government's negligence. This epidemic is the result of the country's ineffectiveness in combating the mosquito. We were able to eradicate it once, and if it comes back, they are the ones to answer for that. There is no doubt that they were late to act.

The mosquito returned to this country 40 years ago. [Note: An eradication effort in the 1950s briefly eliminated Aedes aegypti from Brazil, before the effort was abandoned.] It has been four decades. What's new is the hypothesis that the mosquito causes microcephaly. This is most likely the case.

What is included in the petition that will be made to the Supreme Court?

We're petitioning the government for a bundle of broad public policy actions related to reproductive health; access to contraceptive methods; early, safe diagnoses for microcephaly; improved prenatal care; and the right to an abortion in the event of a positive diagnosis.

Also, the women who have already given birth to babies with microcephaly need to have various options and there should be a strong social policy that supports infants.

The Ministry of Health claims to be offering support…

The ministry has not presented anything new. The continuing benefit program and a monthly stipend for poor families already exist. What we need is to have a generation supported by the Brazilian constitution. A challenge lies ahead of us. We need a wide-reaching policy for this generation of children who have specific needs and whom the Brazilian state is not prepared to support.

How did you react to the criticism -- most notably in the case of Ana Carolina Caseres, the journalist who was diagnosed as microcephalic as a baby and is now speaking out about microcephalic rights -- that there are different levels of ability related to the disorder that should be taken into consideration when easing abortion regulations?

We’ve already excluded people who have been raped, where the fetus is not at risk but where, as the State recognizes, the woman suffers greatly during her pregnancy. Today we have women facing undue consequences because nothing was done to stop these mosquitos.

The issue here is not about the fetus. We have an epidemic on our hands and we are not forcing women to choose [an abortion]. But we want the state to recognize that women should have that choice.

That said, microcephaly exists at different levels. There may be a case of microcephaly with an extremely severe level of impairment, and there can be milder cases too. Generalizing can get dangerous. It may lead to allowing the abortion of a child who might have relatively few symptoms. That is always an argument, but we're not comparing this to anencephaly, which often leads to death.

Do you expect the petition to have an effect in a timely manner, knowing how slow the courts can be?

The decision on abortions in cases of anencephaly took eight years. If I guide myself by past events, I would be even more pessimistic. I hope that the Supreme Court understands that this is an emergency and that they have to move quickly to improve public healthcare.

And what about pressure coming from Bancada Evangelica, the conservative, religious faction within Brazil's House of Representatives?

If that were a real fear, democracy as a whole would not work in this country. If you take into account the overlap between religion and politics that puts abortion in the spotlight in the midst of a political scandal and economic crisis, you’re closing the door. Our courage must be greater. We must be strong enough to confront the problem.

What is the international opinion on abortions for women infected with Zika virus?

Abortion is legal in most countries, so that discussion is not relevant. People tend to be shocked when they find out about the reality in Brazil.

This post first appeared on HuffPost Brasil. It has been translated into English, edited for clarity and updated for an English speaking audience.

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