In the midst of the spread of the Zika virus, which might cause birth defects, an article published Feb. 1 by Georgetown’s O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law encouraged the World Health Organization to promote birth control and abortion in response to the crisis, sparking a backlash from anti-abortion advocates.
The mosquito-borne disease has been linked to birth defects, namely microcephaly, a condition that causes abnormally small heads and brains in babies with afflicted mothers, throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. The WHO designated the illness, projected to afflict four million people in the Americas this year, as a public health emergency of national concern, a classification reserved for cases requiring immediate international action.
In their article, O’Neill Institute Faculty Director Lawrence Gostin and Georgetown global health law adjunct professor Alexandra Phelan urged WHO Director-General Margaret Chan to incorporate directives aimed at decriminalizing abortion to affected countries. According to their piece, nearly all countries in the Americas suffering from the crisis enforce laws that prevent women from accessing reproductive services.
“To truly respect the dignity and health of women of childbearing age, the WHO Director-General should formally recommend that States Parties ensure access to contraception and safe abortions,” Phelan and Gostin wrote. “A government’s duty to guarantee the health and safety of women and their reproductive freedoms is an ethical and human rights imperative in the ongoing Zika pandemic.”
The WHO’s recommendations, released the same day as the article in an address by Chan, included no such directives and advised governments to counsel pregnant women according to national practices and policies.
Of the 22 countries afflicted by the Zika virus, six, including the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Haiti, ban abortion without exception.
The governments of afflicted countries have issued statements alerting women of the risk of birth defects and advising them to avoid pregnancy for the next two years, a decision Phelan and Gostin denounced.
“Calls by countries that women simply avoid getting pregnant – including those by the governments of Brazil, Honduras, Colombia, and El Salvador – without providing access to reproductive rights services, are not only ineffective and naive but dangerous to both women’s and public health,” Phelan and Gostin wrote.
The professors’ stances have provoked backlash from the pro-life community, which opposes pregnancy termination. Local Catholic churches around the Americas have maintained a strong stance against abortion, although pleas for the church to relax its doctrine escalated in advance of Pope Francis’ six-day trip to Mexico beginning Feb. 12.
When asked whether the Catholic Church should consider contraceptive use in relation to the abortion of fetuses infected with the Zika virus during a press conference on Thursday, the pope suggested that contraceptives could be used to prevent fetal infection, several news sources reported.
“It is to kill someone in order to save another. This is what the Mafia does,” Francis said. “On the other hand, avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil.”
Lifenews.com, an independent anti-abortion news outlet, published an editorial by Emily Derois accusing the authors of compromising the university’s Jesuit values.
“Abortion activists have been using the virus to push abortion on the largely Catholic, pro-life countries in South America,” Doris wrote. “Advising women to have an abortion goes directly against the teaching of the Catholic Church, and therefore the very principles that Georgetown was founded upon.”
Phelan and Gostin declined to comment further on the issue.
Michael Khan (COL ’18), president of the secular Georgetown Right to Life, criticized Phelan and Gostin for representing a departure from church doctrine.
“Frankly, I thought it was outrageous. Ending a child’s life is never the solution to a problem, and the fact that Georgetown professors would advocate widespread abortion as a solution to a health epidemic is truly unconscionable,” Khan said.
However, Sophia Kleyman (COL ’16), president of pro-abortion rights student group H*yas for Choice, which is unaffiliated with the university, defended the authors’ position, arguing the virus highlights the abysmal situation of women’s rights and health care around the world.
“It’s completely hypocritical that countries that make abortion completely illegal and birth control functionally inaccessible, are asking women to somehow magically not get pregnant,” Kleyman wrote in an email to The Hoya. “Declarations like this are exceptionally insulting and offensive to women, completely ignoring the astronomically high rates of sexual assault.
Khan agreed current dialogue on pregnant women’s options toward microcephaly is inadequate, but he contended this is because abortion is presented as the only alternative.
“The conversation we should be having is that there definitely should be more clinics with child care resources for these women, not only in the United States, but in these affected places in Latin America,” Khan said.
Georgetown University Official Spokesperson Stacy Kerr did not respond to requests for comment in time for publication.