The Zika virus arrived in El Salvador in November of last year. It moved slowly at first, but by January at least 5000 cases had been confirmed, and the government was monitoring hundreds of pregnant women for possible fetal problems. (The first baby with microcephaly in the country was born in June.)
For feminists and activists, the virus brought along with it a sliver of hope: the possibility that Zika might provide a long-awaited challenge to the country’s ban on abortion. Abortion is illegal in El Salvador. It’s illegal when a malformed fetus doesn’t have a brain and can’t live outside the womb. It is illegal during an ectopic pregnancy, where the fallopian tubes can rupture and cause fatal bleeding. (“We had to act when the woman had signs of good quantity of blood inside her abdomen. That means in an imminent risk of death,” according the former head of obstetrics at the national maternity hospital.) It is illegal if a pregnant woman has cancer and needs treatment that might harm the fetus. Six countries ban abortion without exception (in addition to El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Chile, Malta, and the Holy See), but the country prosecutes the procedure especially aggressively. Women regularly face charges for abortion-related crimes, whether or not the evidence shows that they purposefully terminated a pregnancy. Doctors fear they’ll be arrested if their medical decisions harm an unborn baby.
With Zika, the government seemed to scramble with how to square anti-abortion legislation with a disease known to cause fetal problems. In January, the Ministry of Health put out a statement advising women to delay pregnancy until 2018. “This generated indignation, not only among human rights people, but on a national level,” says Sara García, a member of Agrupación Ciudadana, an organization attempting to legalize abortion. “The real question is what the State will do to guarantee the health and life of a woman confronted with this situation,” one woman told a Spanish newspaper covering the disease. “You cannot continue to deny reality.” In the last few years the number of Salvadorians who want to see abortion legalized for women’s health reasons has been slowly growing. In 2012, 57 percent of Salvadorians wanted to see abortion legalized if the woman’s life was in danger; the next year, the number had risen to 74 percent. Zika seemed yet another opportunity to talk about the process of amending the law. A few weeks later, the minister of health gave a softer statement, saying that the abortion ban was a “difficult truth” and that the virus would illustrate the enormous risks that such a law caused. The question of abortion appeared again in newspapers and on op-ed pages; activists began to talk with the press about the possibility of a challenge to the law. “I think Zika will change things,” one gynecologist told me over the summer.