How the threat of the Zika virus brings abortion rights back in focus.

In between patients, Dr. Leah Torres, an OB/GYN specializing in reproductive and sexual health, said something illuminating.

"We have to call out what being anti-abortion really is — it's reproductive coercion," she said. In other words, being anti-abortion is forcing someone to give birth against their will.

That's why recent moves by the UN are so important. In 2001, it declared that the ability to access abortions is a human right. It even awarded reparations to K.L., a Peruvian woman who was denied the right to an abortion after discovering her fetus had a fatal birth defect.


And late last year, the UN upheld the ruling.

Case closed, right? Abortion access for all!

Wrong.

When you think of countries that violate their citizens' human rights, the U.S. probably isn't one of the first nations to come to mind. Sadly, however, when it comes to abortion, a lot of organizations and state leaders are trying to do just that. More than 43 years after the historic Roe v. Wade decision, efforts to end legal abortion are running full steam ahead, ranging from legislative actions to protests and rallies to even terrorist attacks.


Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

In many countries, abortion is just outright illegal — a clear violation of the UN's stance.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, just four territories allow abortion without exception: Cuba, Guyana, Puerto Rico, and Uruguay. In Chile, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Suriname, abortion is outlawed without exception. Antigua and Barbuda, Brazil, Dominica, Guatemala, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, and Venezuela allow abortion only when it's required to save the life of the mother.

Why the focus on these countries? Because there's a new challenge facing these areas that's making the question of abortion that much more pressing: the Zika virus.

Zika is transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito. This mosquito is also responsible for transmitting chikungunya, dengue, and yellow fever. Photo by Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images.

The Zika virus has been linked to severe birth defects, and it just so happens to thrive in many of these same countries.

Specifically, it's been linked to microcephaly, a birth defect that typically includes permanent brain damage.

In response to the spread of Zika, the government of El Salvador — which bans abortion — is advising women not to get pregnant until 2018. As it's sometimes not so easy as to simply not get pregnant, that advice is not especially helpful.

Torres says there are a host of reasons someone may not want to give birth to a child with a severe birth defect like microcephaly.

"It may be inhumane to give birth to a child with severe birth defects, or parents may be incapable of caring for them, but only the one facing the decision of continuing the pregnancy can decide."

Simply put, she adds, "people must be empowered to make decisions regarding life they bring into the world."

A six-week-old baby born with microcephaly. The heads of babies born with microcephaly are significantly smaller than a healthy baby's. Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images.

Between the risks of giving birth to a child with microcephaly and the general risks of pregnancy, abortion is a truly necessary option.

"People have this notion that because pregnancy is a part of our reproductive lives and continuing the species that it is perfectly safe," Torres says. "It is far from safe."

Having an abortion early in a pregnancy is 14 times safer than carrying the fetus to term and giving birth. There are risks involved in any medical procedure, and it's barbaric to revoke someone's right to decide what risks are worth taking on to them.

"When we undermine the risks undertaken and sacrifices made by those who do give birth to our children, we are showing a severe lack of gratitude and it is inhumanly insulting."

Pro-choice activists at the Supreme Court on the 43rd anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision. Photo by Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images.

Yes, abortion rights are human rights. Now it's time we all started acting like it.

Nobody — not your Congressperson, not Dr. Torres, not me, not your next-door neighbor — should have a say in what you choose to do with your own body. Whether someone has an abortion is a very personal, often difficult decision. No one will ever force you to have an abortion, nor should you be able to force someone to give birth. That's just how it works.

Sadly, the UN's ruling is mostly toothless. That's why it's on us to advocate on behalf of people to have the right to choose whether an abortion is the right option for them. It's especially important in situations like the Zika epidemic.

Whether someone's reason behind getting an abortion is the Zika virus or it simply being the wrong time in their life to have a child — or anything else — that decision needs to be their call, not anybody else's.

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In 1945, the world had just endured the bloodiest war in history. World leaders were determined to not repeat the mistakes of the past. They wanted to build a better future, one free from the "scourge of war" so they signed the UN Charter — creating a global organization of nations that could deter and repel aggressors, mediate conflicts and broker armistices, and ensure collective progress.

Over the following 75 years, the UN played an essential role in preventing, mitigating or resolving conflicts all over the world. It faced new challenges and new threats — including the spread of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, a Cold War and brutal civil wars, transnational terrorism and genocides. Today, the UN faces new tensions: shifting and more hostile geopolitics, digital weaponization, a global pandemic, and more.

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Malians wait in line at a free clinic run by the UN Multidimensional Integrated Mission in Mali in 2014. Over their 75 year history, UN peacekeepers have deployed around the world in military and nonmilitary roles as they work towards human security and peace. Here's a look back at their history.

Photo credit: UN Photo/Marco Dormino

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