It’s a good thing February has an extra day this year. I needed it to ponder the unfolding story of the Zika virus, which earlier this month was declared by WHO to be an international public health emergency. (See: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/02/health/zika-virus-world-health-) A good review of this crisis was just published in Newsweek today: http://www.newsweek.com/2016/03/11/zika-microcephaly-connection-brazil-doctors-431427.html
When we first heard about this mosquito-borne virus and microcephaly, it was a tragic pediatric ethics story. It echoes in some ways the birth defects eventually linked to the drug, thalidomide. But the thalidomide births (which did not cause brain damage) led to the question of reproductive rights, and whether women had the right to terminate pregnancies they knew were affected, as they felt a moral obligation to prevent a harmed life. One of the most public cases of a woman desiring to terminate a thalidomide-affected fetus was Sherri Finkbine, who traveled to Sweden to have her abortion. See the 1962 story from the BBC here: (http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/august/26/newsid_3039000/3039322.stm). Finkbine was denied the right to an abortion by the Arizona courts before deciding to go to Sweden.
Now, over 50 years later in Brazil, women are facing the same dilemma from an insidious cause that is not a drug, but a bug. In a Catholic country where abortion is not accessible, women without means are having babies with microcephaly, resulting in severe impairment. A multidisciplinary group of Brazilian experts are now petitioning the supreme court to allow abortions for women who have contracted the virus. (See: http://www.bbc.com/news/health-3543568). In Columbia, where women with the virus have access to abortion, fewer cases of microcephaly have been seen. (See: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/16/world/americas/zika-virus-in-colombia-presents-complicated-choice-about-abortion.html). The Zika virus has also ignited feminist ethics questions with respect to unfair burdens on women solely because of their biological vulnerabilities (See: https://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2016/02/07/zika-reproductive-rights-issue/U5HBV4u3J5HPscGUcJHefI/story.html).
Clearly, when poor countries are facing epidemic rates of catastrophic birth outcomes that could be prevented, other distributive justice questions are raised, which has forced even the Catholic Church to reconsider its positions. The Pope has declared that birth control is permissible until Zika is under control. (See: http://www.motherjones.com/mojo/2016/02/pope-francis-zika-abortion-contraception-microcephaly).
Talk about a Leap of Faith on this February 29, 2016.