Reproductive Justice
The New Rubella: Zika and What it Means for Abortion Rights

The New Rubella: Zika and What it Means for Abortion Rights

Historians, journalists, and public health officials have begun to call Zika the new rubella (German measles). When a pregnant woman contracts the Zika virus, she normally experiences mild symptoms of fever and rash, much like rubella. But also like rubella, the Zika virus can wreak havoc on the developing fetus. Before the rubella vaccine in the late 1960s, the disease was linked to congenital rubella syndrome — encompassing birth defects such as deafness, sight issues, and microcephaly, a condition in which an infant’s head is smaller than normal due to abnormal brain growth in the womb. Zika is also associated with microcephaly, and again like rubella, this connection has been a catalyst for discussions of public health, abortion law, and women’s autonomy across Latin America.

In the United States, the German measles epidemic of the mid-1960s brought the issue of abortion to the public stage. In the years before Roe vs. Wade, 12.5 million rubella cases in the U.S. caused 2,000 newborn deaths and 20,000 babies born with congenital rubella syndrome. In response, middle-class white women who contracted rubella during pregnancy began to discuss the issue of abortion openly. These discussions changed the public debate around illicit abortions as the public began to support women who had to make these decisions. Historian Leslie J. Reagan, in her book Dangerous Pregnancies: Mothers, Disabilities, and Abortion in Modern America, demonstrates that the media supported these “respectable” married women who decided to have an abortion (in consultation with their husbands and physicians). Yet in reality, it was still incredibly difficult for even middle-class women to get therapeutic abortions as the procedure’s illegality affected its availability across the country.

1965 LIFE story about the Rubella epidemic. (LIFE)
1965 LIFE story about the rubella epidemic. (LIFE)

The rubella epidemic in the U.S. was followed by increased public support for abortion but no change in its availability. So is the Zika virus changing the debate in Latin America today? As Elizabeth Reis has demonstrated, many Latin American governments are telling women to avoid pregancy, sometimes asking them to wait two years, in response to the virus. This is an interesting proposition in a predominantly Catholic (and increasingly evangelical) region where birth control is at times difficult to obtain, more than 50 percent of pregnancies are unplanned, and rates of teen pregnancy and sexual violence are high. But in many countries (including Brazil, where the virus first made headlines), birth control is over-the-counter, low-cost, and free of stigma. The issue that Zika has brought to light is the region’s draconian abortion laws. But have there been any efforts to change them?

As I have written elsewhere, abortion in Brazil is only legal in cases of anencephaly (another fetal anomaly in which the infant is born without parts of the brain and skull), rape, or to save the mother’s life. In 2004, a group of lawyers and activists filed a plea with the Brazilian Supreme Court (STF) to allow for abortion in the case of anencephaly. In 2012, the STF decided in favor of this provision. Now, that same team is filing another plea to authorize abortion in microcephaly cases, which is diagnosable in utero.

The group is arguing that Brazilian women should not be punished for the government’s complete failure to control the Aedes Aegypti mosquito, which transmits Zika as well as Dengue and Chikungunya. The team is also basing its request on better access to reproductive healthcare for all women. As team member and anthropologist Debora Diniz has contended, abortion is an issue marked by race and class in Brazil. Middle- and upper-class women have access to safe, if illegal, abortions because they can pay reputable physicians who perform the procedure discreetly and safely. In contrast, it is poor, often women of color, who have to resort to life-threatening illegal procedures.

Protests in El Salvador after the courts there denied a 23-year-old woman a potentially life-saving abortion. (Amnesty International)
Protests in El Salvador after the courts there denied a 23-year-old woman a potentially life-saving abortion. (Amnesty International)

And Brazil’s laws are lenient when compared to El Salvador (another country with a Zika outbreak), where abortion is illegal without exception. Haiti, Honduras, and Suriname (which also have reported cases of Zika), as well as Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, have similar abortion laws, banning the procedure in all cases. So far the Salvadorian government has not responded to attempts by reproductive health groups to open a dialogue on Zika and abortion. As feminist activist Sara García argues, the government’s recommendation of delaying pregnancy “is not grounded in the realities and the context of El Salvador.” In a country that imprisons women for miscarriages, the idea that Zika will open up a debate about abortion — as rubella did in the United States — is almost unimaginable.

In Brazil, a 2010 poll found that almost two-thirds of all Brazilians oppose abortion.1 But the current crisis in the country has opened up a new space for policy makers, citizens, and physicians — not to mention pregnant women — to rethink their position on abortion. Let’s hope that this debate decriminalizes abortion in the country — and serves as a model for the region.

Further Reading

Alvarez, Jonathan. “The Case of Beatriz: An Outcry to Amend El Salvador’s Abortion Ban.” Pace International Law Review 27, no. 2 (2015): 673-700.

Reagan, Leslie J. “Rashes, Rights, and Wrongs in the Hospital and in the Courtroom: German Measles, Abortion and Malpractice before Roe and Doe.” Law and History Review 27, no. 2 (2009): 241-79.


  1. Relatório síntese: pesquisa de opinião pública nacional, rodada 100 (Brasília: Confederação Nacional do Transporte and Sensus, 2010). Return to text.

Cassia received her PhD in Latin American History with a Concentration in Gender Studies from the University of California, Los Angeles. Her book manuscript, titled A Miscarriage of Justice: Reproduction, Medicine, and the Law in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (1890-1940), examines reproductive health in relation to legal and medical policy in turn-of-the-century Rio de Janeiro. Cassia’s research has been supported by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the Coordinating Council for Women in History, the Fulbright IIE, and the National Science Foundation.

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