Imagine being in your prime reproductive years, settled down with a partner, and ready to start a family, and then being asked by your federal government to hold off on getting pregnant for two years. Or being at the end of your reproductive years and knowing that if you wait two more years to get pregnant you might never get pregnant at all.
Now imagine becoming pregnant by accident, either through misuse or nonuse of birth control, contraceptive failure, or rape. You’ve been asked to hold off on getting pregnant for two years as well, but here you are, pregnant anyway.
You can’t get a safe abortion because the procedure is illegal or highly restricted in the country where you live (see our Pop Facts graphic on page 4). So you continue your pregnancy and hope that you don’t become infected with the Zika virus that’s spreading all around you. When you do become infected, you pray that your developing fetus doesn’t suffer birth defects. Or, you find someone to perform an illegal, unsafe abortion (95 percent of abortions performed in Latin America are unsafe).
This series of grim hypothetical scenarios is the miserable reality for women in several Latin American countries that are scrambling to deal with the spread of Zika, which has been linked to severe microcephaly in the babies of mothers infected with the virus during pregnancy.
Their governments don’t want them to get pregnant, and won’t allow them to have abortions if they do, but they also won’t broaden access to modern contraception because some high-ranking Catholic bishops say it’s against the rules.
Perhaps these bishops and bishop-fearing government officials have forgotten that women can’t become pregnant on their own. That women alone are not responsible for unintended pregnancies or pregnancies that are very much wanted but might be detrimental to the developing fetus. Perhaps celibate men shouldn’t be making sexual health decisions for women at all. Perhaps, and yet …
One organization that is determined to help expand reproductive rights in Zika-affected countries (and anywhere else abortion is illegal) is Women on Web. The mission of the Dutch non-profit is to provide medical abortion (which is only effective very early in pregnancy) to women in countries where it is illegal. It does that by fulfilling orders for the pills online and shipping them to the consumers directly. Of course, these pills are often confiscated by customs, but some do make it all the way to their intended recipients. Back in February, Women on Web reported that since the Zika virus first started spreading, in May 2015, orders for the pills had spiked by 25 percent in Brazil, the country where the Latin American outbreak began.
Haiti and Guatemala are the only two Latin American countries with Zika transmission that still receive U.S. foreign aid for family planning and reproductive health, because of our policy of “graduating” countries whose fertility rates have dropped below 3.0 children per woman. However, as the article on page 16 discusses, fertility rates within countries often vary widely, between women urban and rural, rich and poor, and educated and unschooled. Many family planning program experts lament these graduations as they prematurely remove funding that is still critically needed among vulnerable sectors of the population.
The 150 million women of reproductive age in Latin America are living in fear of bringing a child into this world only to suffer. We must do everything we can as a donor country to alleviate that fear through improved access to comprehensive, voluntary family planning services and supplies for all.