In the face of the Zika virus ravaging countries throughout Latin America, abortion activists are using the crisis to advance their agenda.
The virus, spread through mosquito bites, is linked to a rare birth defect called microcephaly, which results in a shrunken head and malformed brain. Although the link has not been proven, researchers have observed a spike in these birth defects where the Zika virus has infected the population.
The first confirmed case of Zika was reported in Brazil in May 2015. Since then, it's seen explosive growth, numbering more than 13,000 confirmed cases in the country. It has also spread to multiple other nations in South and Central America and the West Indies, including Mexico, Colombia, Haiti, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, among many others. The World Health Organization predicts it may infect up to 4 million in the next year.
Out of concerns for potential birth defects, governments like Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador and Ecuador are advising women to use birth control to avoid pregnancies for at least two years. Colombia, with the second-highest rate of Zika infections, has 560 confirmed cases of pregnant women infected with the virus. El Salvador has 96 cases.
But abortion activists are using this opportunity to push their agenda in these countries, where abortion is totally or partially restricted.
Monica Roa, vice president of strategy at Women's Link Worldwide, said, "In El Salvador, the recommendation to postpone pregnancy is offensive to women and even more ridiculous in the context of strict abortion laws and high levels of sexual violence against girls and women."
El Salvador has a total ban on abortion, with no exceptions for rape or incest.
And Tarah Demant of Amnesty International complained, "It's putting women in an impossible place, by asking them to put the sole responsibility of public health on their shoulders by not getting pregnant, when over half don't have that choice."
Eduardo Espinoza, deputy health minister in El Salvador, confirmed the government will uphold its pro-life laws in spite of the outbreak of Zika, but the crisis might ignite a debate over abortion that could lead to revision of the ban. Espinoza personally hopes "the country's historical memory deepens into a debate."
He was alluding to the 2013 case of "Beatriz," which drew international media attention after the El Salvador Supreme Court rejected Beatriz' petition for an abortion when she found out her baby had birth defects. Although the abortion was eventually permitted owing to a legal loophole (the baby was removed at seven months' gestation via ceasarean section), the case galvanized abortion activists to publicly condemn the abortion ban in the country.
Abortion rights activists are also complaining about lack of access to contraception — in spite of the fact that contraception is largely subsidized by the government in many Latin American countries and are given out free to women.
Latin America has also been the site of coercive population control measures that have included forced sterilizations, especially of poor, uneducated women. Mexico and Peru, for instance, have documented instances of government deception and coercion of women in rural areas, who were induced to sterilize in exchange for payment in food, a number of whom were falsely told sterilization procedures were reversible.
Maria Garcia, a medical provider who has worked in Mexican hospitals, testified that women in labor are pressured to choose birth control by being given the option of an intra-uterine device (IUD) or sterilization. No other choices are offered.
If a woman refuses to submit to either an IUD insertion or a tubal ligation, a steady stream of medical personnel, including doctors, nurses and even social workers, pressures her to choose one of the two options. This pressure steadily increases as the time of the delivery approaches.
All this pressure occurs at a time when the woman is extremely vulnerable. The pain of labor she is experiencing weakens her resistance. I have seen women refuse to accept an IUD or sterilization four or five times during early stages of labor, only to give in when the pain and the pressure becomes too intense. In this way the woman is subjected to a form of torture, without actually having to torture her.
Another woman testified to having an IUD implanted within her even after she had made clear she did not want it. "I repeatedly told the doctor that I did not want the device placed in me. He did not pay any attention to me and ignored my protests," she said. "He placed the device in me anyway."
Abortion is legal in Uruguay, Guyana and French Guiana, but all other countries in South and Central American have a total or near-total ban on abortion. Mexico, Colombia and Panama permit abortions in the case of fetal abnormalities.