Latin and Central America: Zika crisis sparks demand for abortion

For immediate release 22-6-2016. A new study published yesterday in The New England Journal of Medicine by a group of researchers from the University of Texas, Princeton, Cambridge and the NGO Women on Web shows a dramatic increase in demand for safe abortions in Latin-American countries that issued public health advisories in response the Zika virus. Brazil had the highest increase (108%), followed by Ecuador (107.7%) and Venezuela (93.3%).

Since 2015, an outbreak of Zika infection has affected most countries in Central and South America and the Caribbean. In February 2016, the World Health Organization declared the Zika crisis a Global Health Emergency.

For women carrying pregnancies, the Zika virus can cause microcephaly (a problem in the brain development in the fetus), however until now it remained unclear how Zika affected the demand for abortion in the region. Restrictive abortion laws mean that accurate data on numbers of women seeking abortion are extremely difficult to obtain. To circumvent this barrier, researchers collected data from Women on Web, a leading NGO that provides access to safe abortions in countries where they are not universally available. The data was collected from 2010 to 2016 from 19 different Latin-American countries

The study compared trends in requests over five years before the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) issued an epidemiologic alert regarding Zika, on November, 17, 2015, (the “pre-Zika” period) to the period after the alert up until March, 2, 2016 (the “post-Zika” period). In countries with local Zika transmission that issued public health advisories to women, the results showed a substantial increase over baseline trends in requests for abortion in the post-Zika period .

On the ground, activists and doctors have been reporting an acute need for safe abortion among women affected by Zika. Yet, this is the first study to suggest causality between the Zika crisis and a higher demand for safe abortions in Latin America.

Dr. Abigail Aiken, Assistant Professor of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin and the lead author of the study, stated that “this research helps us to understand how fears about Zika in the wake of official government advisories have affected the lives of pregnant women in Latin America and highlights the lack of reproductive autonomy they already endure”  

This study comes at a crucial time, as the WHO currently predicts that the Zika virus will affect 4 million persons in 2017. It also helps to shed at light at how the anticipated pandemic will impact women’s reproductive health. As such, it is a powerful tool to encourage states to ensure that all abortions resulting from this crisis are made safe, legal, and accessible. 

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For more info, please contact:

Abigail R.A. Aiken, MD, MPH, PhD
Postdoctoral Research Associate
Office of Population Research
Princeton University 
 Tel: (+1)512-810-9285

(contact preferably by email)


James Trussell
Professor of Economics and Public Affairs, Emeritus
Senior Research Demographer, Office of Population Research,
Princeton University 
Tel: 609-333-6964
Rebecca Gomperts, MD, MPP, PHD
Women on Web