Abortion recognized as a right by the UN Human Rights Committee but not in Zika infested's Latin American countries

Fifteen years after a Peruvian woman had been refused the right to abort owing to medical reasons, the Peruvian government has finally agreed to compensate the injured party following a Human Rights Committee’s judicial decision in 2005. This news sends a strong signal for women’s rights to safe and legal abortion in the light of the massive spread of Zika virus which is known to severely affect pregnant women and their newborn. However, this debate also unleashes social tensions especially in Latin American countries which possess the most restrictive legislation regarding abortion.


The case dates back to 2001 when a 17-year-old Peruvian girl was pregnant and that doctors found out that the fetus had anencephaly which would cause fatal birth defect. Although abortion was permitted for medical reasons in Peru, the hospital refused pregnancy termination because the State had not provided clear regulations for providing the service. The teenage girl was forced to carry the pregnancy to full term and witnessed helpless her baby die four days after giving birth. According to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the hospital decision impacted heavily the young woman and induced “serious mental and physical consequences on her health.”

In 2005, a complaint was filed with the UN Human Rights Committee, which claimed that “by denying the young woman access to a legal medical procedure her human rights were violated”. The UN Committee based its decision under several articles of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) including the right to an effective remedy, prohibition on torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, right to private life and right of minors to measures of protection. After a decade of judicial process, Peru has finally complied with the request of this young woman. The Huffington Post greeted this landmark case as it is the first time that the “United Nations Committee had held a country accountable for failing to ensure access to safe, legal abortion.”

This decision on the right to abortion strangely echoes with the news around the proliferation of Zika virus which clearly endangers newborns’ health in Latin American countries. 

Zika virus reopening the sensitive abortion debate

Indeed, the Guardian reports that several advocacy organizations are starting to pressure Latin American governments to “rethink their policies on abortion which they fear will lead to a rise in women’s deaths from unsafe abortions as well as the predicted surge in brain-damaged babies.” As a result, governments have advised women not to get pregnant for a matter of months or even years.

However, human rights defenders like Katja Iversen, chief executive of the global advocacy organisation “Women Deliver” criticizes the hypocritical stance of Latin American governments as they do not provide adequate access to birth control methods, forget the prevalence of sexual violence on women or enact rules restricting women’s right to abortion. Organizations like the International Planned Parenthood Federation’s (IPPF) calls on governments to develop more comprehensive legislation, including a facilitated access to contraception, particularly for groups that have low incomes.

A cultural and legal regime denying women’s rights

When looking at the Latin America map for abortion rules, it is compelling to see that 16 countries consider this practice as “illegal” or “illegal with exceptions”. One of the toughest legislation is pursued by El Salvador. In Ilopango prison for women, there are 17 inmates who have been convicted for abortions although they claim to have had miscarriages. For this “offense”, they were sentenced for up to 40 years for aggravated homicide. Erika Guevara Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International, reported to the New York Times that Salvadoran law “criminalizes abortion on all grounds, including when the mother's life or health is in danger, and in cases of rape."As a result, this restrictive legislation entails that 95% of abortions are performed in unsafe conditions. Troubling figures about unsafe abortion reveal that a quarter (27%) of those who die during pregnancy or in childbirth in El Salvador are adolescent girls and that 1 million women end up in hospital because of it. The issue around abortion right clearly raises concern over national public health policies and questions women’s status and rights in those very conservative and patriarchal Latin American societies.

Zika virus, far from loosening legislations on abortion, could lead to more unsafe abortions.  Salvadoran abortion rights activist Ángela Rivas is concerned that Zika will lead to "more clandestine abortions and a higher number of women being sent to jail." She urges all social groups to have a debate on the issue of decriminalizing abortion.

Reforming justice or putting a Price on abortion?

In response to the Latin American governments’ inefficiency, a group of Brazilian lawyers, activists and scientists have decided to “ask the country's supreme court to allow abortions for women who have contracted the virus”. And the number of cases will only soar in the coming months.  Rodrigo Stabeli, vice-president of research at the Instituto Fiocruz, Brazil’s prestigious public health research centre, estimates that by the end of the year there will be about 16,000 cases of microcephaly across the country.

Another easy option for governements consist in "negotiating" the right to abortion. The Guardian explains that “illegal abortion is not uncommon in Brazil, especially for those with the necessary financial resources.” For example, a Brazilian gynaecologist and professor at Pernambuco University declares that “people with the means and the access to abortion already do so in some cases … no one ever finds out. For those who have money in Brazil, the laws are different.”

Similarly, Beatriz Galli, a senior policy adviser for the women’s reproductive rights group Ipas, argues that “although federal law guarantees women’s rights to contraceptives, in practice access is often limited.” She points out that sterilization is not affordable while the morning-after pill is neither free, nor easily delivered. She concludes by acknowledging “it is true to say there is totally free access to contraception for all levels of society, especially the most vulnerable”. This last comment emphasizes the unsustainable social inequalities that characterize Latin American societies and that heavily challenges their functioning, a social trend highlighted by the Zika outbreak.

Céline Krebs, Coordinator at CIPADH

Davide Grimes. “United Nations Committee affirms Abortions as a Human Right.” Huffington Post. Published on 25 January 2016. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-a-grimes/united-nations-committee-affirms-abortion-as-a-human-right_b_9020806.html

UN News Centre. UN announces that Peru will compensate woman in historic human rights abortion case. Published on 18 January 2016.  http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=53033#.Vq9dSC_2Zzl

Sarah Boseley and Bruce Douglas. Zika outbreak raises fears of rise in deaths from unsafe abortions. The Guardian. Published on 29 January 2016. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/29/zika-virus-unsafe-abortions-contraception-latin-america

Aisha Gani. Zika virus: the options facing pregnant women across Latin America. The Guardian. Published on 29 January 2016.  http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/29/zika-virus-latin-america-women-abortion

Jasmine Garsd. Zika Virus Isn't The First Disease To Spark A Debate About Abortion. NPR. Published on 31 January 2016. http://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2016/01/31/464750384/zika-virus-isnt-the-first-disease-to-spark-a-debate-about-abortion

BBC News latin America and Caribbean. Q&A: Abortion rules in Zika-affected countries. Published on 29 January 2016.  http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-35438404