“The spread of the Zika virus across Latin America will hopefully pave the way for more flexible legislation, but the fight for legal abortion should remain one which would ultimately entitle all women, whatever their circumstances, to access these services.”

The region of Latin America and the Caribbean occupies approximately 13% of the earth’s land surface area. However, it is arguably one of the most under-reported and under-prioritised corners of the globe. Rapid economic development, as well as a corresponding decrease in the number people living below the poverty line, has led to an equally rapid deprioritisation by Official Development Assistance (ODA) funding and international policymakers.

And yet, Latin America and the Caribbean has some of the world’s most restrictive sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) legislation. Amongst other things, SRHR allow people to access important health and community services, from family planning and STI prevention and treatment, to support with tackling violence against women and girls as well as access to safe abortion services. In too many Latin American countries, however, SRHR legislation (or lack thereof) is tied up with religious and cultural conservatism set on maintaining patriarchal structures and traditional gender roles. The result: non-existent or highly restricted access to these crucial services, especially abortion.

If anything positive can be drawn from the onslaught of the mosquito-borne Zika virus across Latin America, it is that the region’s poor track record in SRHR has been thrust straight into the limelight: the Zika virus is widely believed to be the cause for the birth defect microcephaly, where babies are born with undersized craniums, though this theory is yet to be scientifically proven.

Back in January, public health officials in El Salvador (one of the countries most affected by the Zika virus) advised women to delay pregnancy for the next two years to prevent children from developing the defect. On 21 January, Eduardo Espinoza, the country’s vice-minister of public health, told Al Jazeera:

“We’d like to suggest to all the women of fertile age that they take steps to plan their pregnancies, and avoid getting pregnant between this year and next.”

Women’s rights groups across the globe were livid. Why? Firstly, because despite scientific progress, a man is still required to get a woman pregnant. She does not have sole responsibility or control over her fertility. Secondly, access to contraception in El Salvador is highly restricted and abortion is still illegal. How, then, other than the oh-so-progressive abstinence option, are women supposed to “avoid getting pregnant”?

According to Amnesty International, women found guilty of having an abortion in El Salvador can be sentenced to between two and eight years in prison. 

Only five countries in Latin America and the Caribbean allow abortion “without restriction, as to reason”. These are Uruguay, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Guyana and French Guiana. The most illustrative cases often lie, however, not in the extremes (like El Salvador), but in countries where we believe that, for all intents and purposes, these issues have been duly dealt with.

Chile is one of the most economically stable and prosperous countries in the region. It is one of the safest countries for travellers and boasts one of the best healthcare system in Latin America. Yet, abortion remains illegal.

The ban on the practice stems from the bleak, highly conservative years of the Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990). Whilst the influence of the Catholic church maintains a powerful hold over the country and its legislation, in 2015 women’s rights groups finally reached a new stage in the fight for safe, legal abortion. The Constitutions Commission accepted a draft bill to allow abortion in three cases: rape, unviability of the foetus, or danger to the mother’s life. If approved by the Commission, the draft bill will then make its way to the Senate.

However, the bill has been widely criticised by civil society organisations in Chile and from around the globe. In only granting women’s right to abortion under these three circumstances, it does not acknowledge a woman’s right to decide whether to have children, when and how many.

Ana Piquer Romo, the Executive Director of Amnesty International in Chile, agreed that the bill “guarantees less than the minimum that States should to protect women’s rights”. However, Ana said that Amnesty International would support the bill:

“Consented abortion should not be a crime under any circumstances, not for the woman or for the person who assists her, whether they are a healthcare professional or not. [Although inadequate], the bill would improve the situation for some women in Chile, and in that sense it would be a breakthrough.”

Piquer Romo also acknowledged that, while Chile is an advanced country in many respects, the abortion debate illustrates that this progress has yet to reach the realm of human rights and public policies. According to a number of surveys, public support for the bill is as high as 70% and while the government is open to the idea of reform, power remains in the firm clutches of parliamentarians.

The situation in Chile demonstrates that the transformation of low-income countries into economic powerhouses does not always correspond with progress in human rights legislation.

As a global community we should be wary of using World Bank classifications to determine which countries require the most support, as it is often in high and middle-income countries that some of the hardest battles still lie ahead. On the other hand, the situation in Chile also highlights the importance of acknowledging that abortion is not a necessary evil; it is both a public health requirement and a human right.

The spread of the Zika virus across Latin America will hopefully pave the way for more flexible legislation, but the fight for legal abortion should remain one which would ultimately entitle all women, whatever their circumstances, to access these services.