The Zika virus is spreading so rapidly throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, that the World Health Organization is now declaring it an international health emergency. Although there continues to be confusion and misinformation about the virus and its effects on pregnancy, the government of Colombia has asked women to abstain from sexual intercourse and delay pregnancy to curb the effects of the Zika virus. Nothing more, nothing less.
But putting the burden on women to curb the effects of the Zika virus is not a solution. It’s discriminatory, unsustainable, and does nothing to support women’s reproductive rights — particularly since there is already very limited reproductive health information and services in Bogotá, Cali, and Medellín. Options are even fewer outside major cities. Although the WHO has called the virus an international threat, the government does not appear to be prepared or willing to provide women with the necessary information about their reproductive health — ranging from contraceptives to the medical services pregnant women need.
In Colombia, the Procurador General de la Nación (a sort of Inspector General) — is responsible for guaranteeing fundamental rights. But Procurador Alejandro Ordóñez Maldonado has repeatedly failed in his duty by providing inaccurate and biased information on sexual and reproductive rights. In 2012, the Colombian Constitutional Court condemned the procurador and two of his deputies for spreading false information about sexual and reproductive health services, claims which included that emergency contraception causes abortion; that health care providers have an absolute right to deny services based on personal or religious objections; and that there is no right to access safe abortion in Colombia. Despite laws requiring a clear separation between church and state, Ordóñez’s decisions and actions are repeatedly driven by Catholic doctrine, instead of his responsibility to protect constitutional rights.
Colombians have the right to legal abortion in cases of rape, incest, fatal fetal impairments, and when the pregnancy puts the health and life of a woman at risk. Procurador Ordóñez, however, has made no effort to ensure women have accurate reproductive health information and access to services.
This misinformation has now led to widespread confusion about modern contraceptive options, resulting in many unplanned pregnancies. The Guttmacher Institute notes that of the more than 400,000 induced abortions that occur in Colombia each year, only 0.08 percent of them are reported as legal procedures. It comes as no surprise then that the Colombian health system treats 93,000 women for post-abortion complications each year that could be avoided if women had access to reproductive health information and services to which they are legally entitled.
Colombians are not alone in their justifiable concerns about the Zika virus — the women of El Salvador are at risk of even more danger and needless suffering. In fact, the suspicion cast on pregnant women because of El Salvador’s blanket abortion ban is so extreme that if they arrive at hospitals with pregnancy complications, medical staff report them to the police and these women are immediately accused of obtaining an illegal abortion. This practice is so rampant that women who suffered miscarriages have been charged with aggravated homicide and sentenced up to 40 years in prison — all simply for having pregnancy complications.
If attempting to control your fertility or even getting medical attention when suffering a severe pregnancy complication is already dangerous for Salvadorans, the government’s rebuke against pregnancy during the Zika outbreak will only make the situation worse. And while there have been calls from progressive voices in El Salvador to decriminalize abortion and provide universal access to a full range of modern contraceptives, evangelical and Catholic voices are equally loud in opposition and the government is at a stalemate on reproductive health.
What Colombia, El Salvador, and all countries must do to address Zika is take steps to provide accurate information and services. Otherwise their recommendation to avoid pregnancy will be “letra muerta,” an impracticable, even meaningless demand by states unwilling to provide reproductive health options.
More than 2,100 pregnant women have been infected with Zika in Colombia alone. And the WHO is estimating that as many as 4 million people in the Americas may soon be infected. The personal beliefs of politicians, religious authorities, and medical providers have no place in determining what medical services women can and cannot have.
This is not a matter of politics or religion, this is a matter of law. It is essential that we address Zika in a holistic way that gives women the full range of health options and respects reproductive rights as fundamental human rights.Catalina Martínez Coral is the regional director for Latin America & the Caribbean at the Center for Reproductive Rights.