UN Human Rights Chief Urges Expanded Access to Contraception, Abortion in Light of Zika Virus

By Lauretta Brown | February 7, 2016 | 6:31 PM EST

A baby plays with a doctor during a group therapy session for babies born with microcephaly at a free healthcare treatment center in Recife, Brazil on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016. Brazil is in the midst of a Zika outbreak and authorities say they have also detected a spike in cases of microcephaly in newborn children, although the link between Zika and microcephaly is as yet unproven. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

(CNSNews.com) – U.N. high commissioner for human rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein urged Latin American governments Friday to increase access to “reproductive health services,” including emergency contraception and abortion, in light of the rise of the mosquito-borne Zika virus in Brazil which is suspected to be linked to a birth defect called microcephaly.

In Brazil alone, more than 4,000 cases of microcephaly have been reported in babies since late last year.

Zeid called managing the spread of the disease “a major challenge to the governments in Latin America.”

“In Zika-affected countries that have restrictive laws governing women’s reproductive rights, the situation facing women and girls is particularly stark on a number of levels,” he said.

“In situations where sexual violence is rampant, and sexual and reproductive health services are criminalized, or simply unavailable, efforts to halt this crisis will not be enhanced by placing the focus on advising women and girls not to become pregnant.

“Many of the key issues revolve around men’s failure to uphold the rights of women and girls, and a range of strong measures need to be taken to tackle these underlying problems,” Zeid added.

“Upholding human rights is essential to an effective public health response and this requires that governments ensure women, men and adolescents have access to comprehensive and affordable quality sexual and reproductive health services and information, without discrimination,” he said,

The statement from Zeid’s office noted that “comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services include contraception – including emergency contraception – maternal healthcare and safe abortion services to the full extent of the law.”

“Laws and policies that restrict her access to these services must be urgently reviewed in line with human rights obligations in order to ensure the right to health for all in practice,” Zeid concluded.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Nicaragua ban all abortions, while Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Paraguay, Suriname and Venezuela allow abortion only to save a woman’s life.

These predominantly Catholic countries now face an ethical dilemma as health authorities are advising women to avoid becoming pregnant due to the Zika virus crisis.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly condemns abortion as well as the use of contraception, apart from natural family planning.

While the Vatican has yet to weigh in, a spokesman for the Catholic Archdiocese of Olinda and Recife in Brazil, Luciano Brito, told reporters that “Nothing justifies an abortion. Just because a fetus has microcephaly won’t make us favorable” to changing the law.

Brazil’s Catholic bishops said that despite the grave situation, there was no need for “panic,” and no justification for advocating abortion as a remedy.

They called for the “shameful” state of the country’s public health system to be addressed.

“Without an effective national policy of basic sanitation every effort to controlling Aedes Aegypti [the mosquito spreading Zika] is compromised.” 

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