Zika virus
Pregnant women wait for a general routine check-up, which includes a Zika screening, at the maternity ward of a hospital in Guatemala City Reuters/Josue Decavele

A Dutch non-governmental organisation (NGO) is offering free abortion pills online to pregnant women infected by the Zika virus. Zika fever is a disease stemming from a virus transmitted by mosquitoes, known as the Zika virus. The virus has been heavily linked with microcephaly – wherein the head and brain of babies do not develop to the size that they should.

On Monday (1 January), the World Health Organisation declared that the situation meets the conditions of a "public health emergency of international concern", signalling the seriousness of the outbreak. Pregnant women have since been advised to avoid travel to countries affected by the Zika virus and last week, women living in Brazil, Colombia, and El Salvador were advised against getting pregnant for at least two years.

Brazil has been hit the hardest by Zika, with 270 confirmed cases of microcephaly and 3,448 suspected cases reported since October 2015, up from 147 in 2014.

Bypassing Brazil's ban on abortion

Rebecca Gomperts, founder and director of reproductive health organisation Women On Web, announced this week her NGO would provide free medical, pill-induced abortions to pregnant women infected with the Zika virus.

"The Zika epidemic, which is transmitted by mosquitoes and may cause birth defects in pregnant women, is spreading rapidly in South America where abortion is legally restricted," Gomperts said in a statement.

Governments of these highly religious Latin American countries criminalise abortion and limit access to birth control. This, the director said, leaves women with very few options to avoid becoming pregnant or to terminate an unwanted pregnancy – particularly if they become infected by the virus.

Zika virus
Matheus Lima, 22, holds his two-month-old son Pietro, who has microcephalia contracted from an Aedes aegypti mosquito bite, at his home in Salvador, Brazil Christophe Simon/AFP

On its website, the NGO states: "Therefore Women on Web (www.womenonweb.org) will offer free medical abortions to pregnant women with Zika. Women can do the online consultation, and when they send the laboratory result indicating the Zika infection, packages containing medical abortion pills will be sent for free."

online abortion service is directed at women who are less than nine weeks pregnant. They can do "an online consultation, which is reviewed by doctors, and packages that contain medical abortion pills are sent in case the woman is eligible for the medical abortion", the NGO said on its website.

In Brazil, President Dilma Rouseff's chief of staff Jaques Wagner said the Zika virus outbreak would not stop this summer's Olympics from being staged in Rio de Janeiro, but he did warn pregnant women to stay away from the Games.

A group of Brazilian lawyers, activists and scientists are petitioning the nation's Supreme Court to waive the law banning abortions for women who have contracted the Zika virus.

Where is abortion illegal in countries afflicted by Zika*?

  • Colombia, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Guadeloupe, Paraguay, Venezuela, Argentina, Surinam, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Panama, Haiti, Dominican Republic: Shipment of the medical abortion can take up to 1-5 weeks depending on shipping method for the country, so it is important that women contact Women on Web as early as possible when they are aware of their Zika infection
  • Barbados: Abortion is available
  • Brazil: Abortion remains illegal except in health emergencies, in cases of rape or a brain condition known as anencephaly.The Brazilian government stops all packages that contain medical abortions. Women on Web has called upon the Brazilian government and Anvisa to suspend the interception of packages with medical abortions at least for the duration of the Zika epidemic
  • Mexico: Women can access safe abortion services in Mexico City
  • French Guyana: Abortion is available in the public health system
  • Saint Martin: Abortion is available
  • Other Caribbean Islands: Abortion is available in Curacao and Aruba

*Information provided by Women On Web