Pregnancy ban impractical solution to Zika virus in El Salvador

The outbreak of the Zika virus across Latin American countries has become a fear-inducing aspect of life for many—specifically pregnant women. Due to the linkage between mothers with the Zika virus and incomplete brain development in their babies, officials from El Salvador are promoting a ban on pregnancy until 2018. When considering El Salvador’s stringent laws regarding abortion and their inaccessibility to preventive measures, however, the suggested ban places women in a very risky situation.

Although discovered in the Zika Forest in Uganda in the late 1940s, the Zika virus outbreak in Brazil and nearby nations—such as El Salvador—has caused the Zika virus to come into focus in the global eye. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the mosquito-transmitted virus causes fevers, rashes, headaches and—in some cases—pink eye. The more damaging impact of the Zika virus, however, has been said to be its connection with microcephaly, a neurological disorder resulting in abnormally small heads in newborns and an impairment to cognitive development. Hence, why women are being urged to not get pregnant.

To prevent pregnancy in the first place, the simplest measures are the use of contraceptives. Women in El Salvador, however, lack access to both birth control pills and condoms. Although legal in El Salvador, birth control can only be given to women with a prescription and the pills themselves are only sold in limited areas. There is also a limited availability of condoms, making them very expensive.

Additionally, if a woman does become pregnant, they lack the option to abort their fetus due to El Salvador’s strict abortion laws—laws that are considered to be some of the strictest in the world. El Salvador outlawed abortion in all circumstances in 1998—including when a woman is raped, has fatal abnormalities or the pregnancy has life-threatening effects for the mother. The 1998 law seems to have gone a step back in time for women and their rights, especially considering the flexibility of the 1973 Penal Code in El Salvador.

The 1973 Penal Code permitted women to lawfully get an abortion under three circumstances: when abortion was the only option in saving the life of the mother, in cases of rape or statutory rape and when the baby had risk of deformity. The 1998 law reverses this and places El Salvador as one of six nations in the world denying women abortion under all circumstances.

In El Salvador, women have spent years in jail after being accused of abortion when they actually had a miscarriage. With the fear of jail time, women in El Salvador keep home abortions under wraps. As a country with one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in Latin America, El Salvador sees women resorting to dangerous methods of aborting their own babies such as ingesting pesticides or rat poison. By outlawing pregnancy, El Salvador only increases the risk for this dangerous behavior.

Rather than restricting abortion rights, the Salvadoran government should provide women with pregnancy preventative tools. By lowering the price of birth control pills and condoms, more women can use these contraceptives and actually abide by the law.

While the Salvadoran Demographic Association provides family planning services to people across the country, the government’s involvement toward preventing pregnancy is crucial in preventing women from feeling helpless with their bodies and the law.