At least 5,000 pregnant women are currently infected with the Zika virus, which is linked to microcephaly—a birth defect that causes babies to be born with abnormally small heads and often requires lifelong parental care. Most of these mothers reside in conservative Catholic countries. They face restrictive abortion laws, inadequate access to contraception, and lack affordable medical treatment for their new children.
Pope Francis continues to oppose abortion for Zika-affected women. However, he does suggest that contraception may be an acceptable alternative, citing as an analogy Pope Paul IV’s choice to allow Catholic nuns in the Congo to use birth control when threatened by rape. Regional religious leaders like Bishop Steiner of Brazil and Cardinal Maradiaga of Honduras disagree with Francis’s exception, and have soundly denounced both contraceptives and abortion.
According to a 2015 survey by the Pew Research Center, the majority of citizens in Latin American countries are anti-abortion, an opinion reflected in the ultra-restrictive laws in nearly every country affected by the Zika virus. Alternatives that religious leaders and government officials have proposed consist of natural conception—checking one’s menstrual cycle and having sex only when when not fertile—and a two-year stretch of abstinence. Since the former method can be difficult to effectively administer and the latter is unlikely to be used on a large scale, birth control remains the only viable option for preventing Zika-affected pregnancies.
It is particularly problematic that poor women tend to be the victims of this virus. The shortage of air conditioners and window screens in low-income households make poor women more susceptible to Zika-spreading mosquitoes. Country-specific health ministries provide contraceptives, but insufficient sex education, a dearth oft health clinics in rural areas, and religious pressure on poor rural women means that they are less likely to use them. Access to abortion is also divided socioeconomically—poor women can’t afford to travel overseas for more qualified doctors. When they try to abort their children illegally, the procedures they undergo are far more risky; the Guttmacher Institute reports that 95 percent of abortions in Latin America are unsafe by World Health Organization standards.
Babies with microcephaly typically require expensive brain stimulus and physical therapy. This means that their mothers, who already work and earn substantially less than men, have to spend their lives looking after dependent children, which restricts mobility out of poverty. The recessions that many Zika-affected countries are going through exacerbates this problem, as they hinder the government’s ability to provide access to the expensive pediatricians and therapists that babies with microcephaly usually need.
Impoverished women deal with policies that are unlikely to change due to political and religious inertia. This lack of change could have disastrous implications for thousands thus perpetuating the marginalization that they already suffer.