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Zika Virus Reignites Abortion Debate In Brazil


As we mentioned earlier, Brazil and the U.S. are starting work together on a vaccine. So let's talk more about the impact on Brazil, where the spread of Zika is forcing families to make heart-wrenching decisions about whether to have children. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports from a clinic that is trying to help.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: At the Genesis Clinic in Salvador, they're normally in the business of getting women pregnant. But this fertility clinic now finds itself advising its patients to put off conceiving.

BELA ZAUSNER: We have embryos. We have eggs.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Dr. Bela Zausner is the director, and she points at canisters of nitrogen where both embryos and eggs are in a deep freeze.

ZAUSNER: We do have to postpone, and that's what we do here at our clinic.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Women who are waiting to do fertility treatment are now being offered the option to freeze their eggs or an embryo at no additional cost because of the new guidelines after the Zika outbreak. Thirty-eight-year-old lawyer Nina Feitosa has been trying to conceive for a while now, and she finally thought her dream was about to come true. But now she says she's putting off her pregnancy.

NINA FEITOSA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "I am afraid," she says. "It's something that could have grave consequences. I could have a child with severe disabilities, which no one wants to have happen," she says.

FEITOSA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She tears up.

You seem upset about this.

FEITOSA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "I have been chasing a dream," she tells me. "But it's better to wait," she says. She says she knows many other women who are making the same choice. "This feels like it has taken away our right to have a child," she says. "And even if we got pregnant," she says, "it would be nine months of tension, apprehension, where we're wondering if the child is going to be OK. We are living in a moment," she says, "where things feel out of our control."

FEITOSA: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Women's fertility has always been a battleground. And while some are fighting to have a child here, others want to be able to terminate a pregnancy. In much of Latin America, abortion is illegal, and Brazil is no exception. There are only three cases in which termination is allowed here - rape, danger to the mother and a rare disorder where the child is unlikely to survive outside the womb. The pro-abortion movement hasn't been able to get much traction on the issue, and they're hoping the debate around the suspected cases of Zika-related microcephaly will change that. Debora Diniz is a law professor and activist. She and other pro-abortion groups are going to petition the Brazilian Supreme Court.

DEBORA DINIZ: So what we're going to ask - that as that of the government responsibility, women might have the right to decide if they want to keep pregnancy or perform an abortion.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Activists across the region note that pregnancy in Latin America is often unplanned. There are high levels of sexual violence, and many women don't have access to birth control. Poor women, often black, are the ones who've been overwhelmingly affected so far in Brazil by the microcephaly spike. So activists say the petition will also demand access to contraception and early testing in order to protect poor women's rights.

DINIZ: So the epidemic has a class; it has color.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Their case will be presented in the next few weeks. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Salvador. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.