In a report published today by Time magazine, Matt Sandy reported on the plans of Brazilian lawmakers to increase the penalties for abortion, despite the pleas of international bodies such as the UN to legalize abortion during the Zika epidemic.
Brazil, like many Latin American nations affected by Zika, does not allow abortion except in cases where rape can be proven, the mother’s life is at risk, or if the child will not survive. Women who have contracted the Zika virus are at risk of their unborn children developing the congenital abnormality microcephaly, a condition where the child is developmentally stunted and born with an unusually small head.
While the Pope has suggested that the Catholic Church’s longstanding ban on contraceptives should be loosened to combat the effects of Zika such as it did in the 1960s rape epidemic in the Congo, the threat of contracting microcephaly remains for women who are already or will soon become pregnant. And despite the Pope’s pressure to allow women and couples extra reproductive rights, the evangelical movement in Brazil has not eased its stance and seeks to reaffirm its prohibition on abortion with harsher sentencing.
“Abortion is not the answer to the Zika virus, we need to value life in whatever situation or condition it may be,” Sergio da Rocha, the president of the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops, said last week. The Catholic and Pentecostal churches have stressed that children living with microcephaly can still be loved and cared for.
Women in Brazil currently face one to three years in prison for undergoing an abortion or self-aborting. Doctors face one to four years for performing abortions on consenting women and face up to ten years if the woman has not consented. The law now being drafted in Brazil would increase the maximum sentence to 15 years
“With the crisis that has hit our country a feminist movement has tried to take advantage to change our abortion laws,” says the bill’s author Anderson Ferreira, a member of Brazil’s lower house from the Republic Party. Ferreira represents the state of Pernambuco, the epicenter of the outbreak of thousands microcephaly cases that may be linked to the Zika outbreak. “This movement needs to be confronted,” he adds. “Everyone needs to realize the gravity of the crime that is abortion and that it is not acceptable.”
The illegal status of abortion in Brazil has nonetheless not prevented it from occurring. Sources used by Time estimate 850,000 women per year have illegal abortions, many of which are dangerous to the health of the woman. In 2013 around 200,000 women were hospitalized for complications from illegal abortion.
Economic inequality causes vast disparity between access to abortion services in a country where wealthy women can pay for a safe abortion but an estimated 95% of abortions are risky. Doctors used by poor women are often ill-trained members of criminal networks operating in unsafe conditions.