There is no denying it: the Zika virus is on the rise and we are not ready to deal with it. Zika has now spread to 32 countries and territories. The virus, which has the most impact on pregnant women and their fetuses, has already been discovered in nearly 300 pregnant women in the United States and territories. It has been linked to a condition in newborns called microcephaly. Infants with microcephaly are born with abnormally small and underdeveloped heads and may experience seizures, underdeveloped brains, issues with balance and movement, hearing and vision loss, and other developmental delays.
The spread of Zika has highlighted the shocking lack of access to reproductive health services and contraceptives across Latin America and has spurred women throughout the region to call for more reproductive rights, particularly access to safe and legal abortions. In addition to increasing access to safe abortions, in order to fight Zika in a sustainable way, we have to invest in comprehensive sex education and family planning. This is necessary not only in Latin American nations, but also in North America, where the virus is expected to spread dramatically over the summer.
Lack of comprehensive sex education endangers women and girls. Currently, researchers are aware of two possible methods of transmission of the Zika disease: either through infected mosquitoes or sexual transmission. Because the virus can spread through unprotected sex, there is an even greater need than before for comprehensive sex education. Even though many Latin American countries have laws requiring sex education, in reality access is little and patchy in most countries. In countries such as El Salvador, there is zero sex education because of religious opposition. With little to no access to information, it is not surprising that 56 percent of all pregnancies in Latin America and the Caribbean are unintended, and unintended pregnancies are especially common among young girls.
The U.S. is not doing that great either. While the teen pregnancy rates have fallen, fewer teens are using condoms, the only method of birth control that can prevent sexual transmission of the virus. In addition, nearly 50 percent of pregnancies in the U.S. continue to be unintended. This is probably because less than half of the states require sex education and an even smaller number require the information to be medically accurate. Current sex education accessibility and quality in Latin American countries and the U.S. is insufficient and jeopardizes the safety of the women and girls.
Limited reproductive rights and access hurts women and girls. Even if women are aware of the dangers of having a child during the Zika outbreak and are able to make informed choices, limited reproductive rights and health care access could tie their hands. One out of ten women in Latin America and the Caribbean have an unmet need for contraception. In some of these places, the prospects are even gloomier. For example in Haiti 66% of women do not have access to modern contraception methods. In the U.S., while accessing contraceptives might be easier, ten percent of people at risk of an unintended pregnancy still do not use them.
Reproductive rights include access to safe and legal abortions should women want them, but most Latin American women are deprived of this right and abortion rights and access are facing increasing attacks in the U.S. Currently abortion is entirely illegal in seven Latin American countries—this means that even in the cases of incest, rape and a threat to the mother’s health or life, abortion is criminalized and punishable by law. Furthermore, nearly 97% of Latin American women of the reproductive age live in countries with restricted or no access to legal abortions. In Latin America and the Caribbean, 760,000 women are hospitalized due to unsafe abortions every year.
In the U.S. only last year, nearly 400 bills were introduced and 57 laws were enacted to restrict access to safe abortions. Since 2011, more than 162 abortion clinics have closed down in large due to these restrictions. Our response to Zika should include increasing access to all reproductive rights and services, including abortion. It is especially worrisome that Texas and Florida, states likely to be among the hardest hit by Zika, also have the most restrictive anti-abortion laws. Florida recently cut all funding for clinics that provide abortion services making it harder to access even preventative care. Texas’s unnecessary regulations targeting abortion providers have left only 10 clinics open for the heavily populated state.
Clearly, the Americas need a little renovation in the reproductive rights and sex education department. These restrictions and shortcomings in reproductive health are not surprising or new– rather the outbreak of the Zika virus simply brought existing problems to light. Increasing investment in these sectors and expanding reproductive rights will not only make it possible to halt the fast-paced spread of the Zika virus, but also will help lay the foundation for more rights for women in the Americas- and that is long overdue.