As the Zika virus spreads and South American governments advise women to avoid pregnancy, some Catholic leaders have spoken out, saying abortion is not a solution for women impacted by the virus.
The Vatican has remained silent on the issue, leading local bishops and archdioceses to make their own pronouncements regarding pregnancies that could result in children with microcephaly, a condition that has been linked to Zika, the Daily Mail reported.
In Brazil, where abortion is mostly illegal, the spread of the virus has some pushing for changes to abortion laws.
“Pregnant women across Brazil are now in a panic,” Silvia Camurça, director of a Brazilian feminist group, told the New York Times. “The fears over the Zika virus are giving us a rare opening to challenge the religious fundamentalists who put the lives of thousands of women at risk in Brazil each year to maintain laws belonging in the dark ages.”
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But Rev. Luciano Brito, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Olinda and Recife in Brazil, said the church will oppose any effort to legalize abortion.
“Nothing justifies an abortion,” Brito told the Times. “Just because a fetus has microcephaly won’t make us favorable” to changing the law.
Microcephaly is a congenital condition, resulting in babies who are born with abnormally small heads and underdeveloped brains. There is no treatment for the condition, according to the Mayo Clinic, but doctors and parents can improve the quality of life for children born with microcephaly through therapy. The condition is thought to be triggered by the Zika virus -- while the virus doesn't cause serious complications in adults, pregnant women can pass the infection to their unborn children, health officials say.
The rapid spread of the virus has led the World Health Organization to declare a public health emergency. Zika has spread through most of Latin America, including Brazil, Colombia, Bolivia, Panama, Guatemala, and parts of Mexico. The first handful of confirmed cases in the U.S. were diagnosed in mid-January, with the Centers for Disease Control confirming that Zika can be transmitted sexually by a partner who has been infected, CNN reported. The majority of infections are transmitted by mosquito bites.
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Doctors in Brazil said they're struggling with ways to handle speaking to patients about the virus. Dr. Artur Timerman, an infectious-disease specialist in São Paulo, said he's fielded questions from pregnant women who were unsure what to do after testing positive for Zika.
“They come to my office and ask, ‘Is there a chance for my baby to have microcephaly?’ ” Timerman told the Times. “We need to inform them there is. They ask if the chance is big or small. I respond, ‘I don’t know.’ They ask what I would do in their position. I tell them it’s a personal decision, only that the chance is a real one.”