A majority of Brazil’s Supreme Federal Tribunal has voted against an intervention seeking to decriminalize abortion for expectant mothers diagnosed with the Zika virus.

The judges convened a virtual plenary session April 24 to hear arguments for and against the “Direct Action on Unconstitutionality-ADI 5581,” a legal intervention filed with the court by the National Association of Public Defenders.

While the court has until April 30 to vote on the matter, 7 of its 11 members have already voted in opposition, effectively rejecting the measure.

Abortion is illegal in Brazil but previous Supreme Court rulings have declared it a “non-punishable crime” in cases of rape, a proven risk to life of the mother and, as of 2012, babies diagnosed with anencephaly.

The Zika virus garnered international attention in 2015 after areas of Brazil noted a spike in cases of the birth defect microcephaly – a condition marked by abnormally small heads, brains, and developmental delays – following a recent outbreak of the virus in areas of northeastern Brazil.

Research on the virus suggested a link between Zika virus infection during pregnancy and severe neurological birth defects, including microcephaly and incomplete brain development.

However, some experts criticized what they described as technical and scientific flaws of the premise behind ADI 5581.
The Union of Catholic Jurists of Rio de Janeiro issued an official statement arguing that a causal relationship was never established between Zika virus and the microcephaly outbreak that occurred in Brazil.

Raphael Câmara, an obstetrician at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, said that when an attempt was made in 2016 to allow abortion in Zika cases, little was known about the virus.

“Since then, we have answers to many of the issues raised in ADI-5581 in support of allowing abortion,” Câmara said. “The first fact is that recent studies show that fetuses of infected mothers are affected only 5 to 14% of the time, with the majority having mild problems, as shown by research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

“In addition, a study recently released by the CDC showed that 73% of Brazilian labs have a low accuracy rate for diagnosing the Zika virus, so the request is meaningless because we cannot talk about someone 'infected with Zika', but rather 'maybe infected by Zika.’ Is it based on this inaccuracy that we will kill fetuses?” the obstetrician continued.

Ahead of the Supreme Court ruling, pro-life groups in Brazil had spoken out against efforts to expand abortion in the country. A CitizenGo petition against the legal action drew more than 184,000 online signatures.

The Brazilian Bishops’ Conference had also opposed the attempt, calling on Catholics to defend life and oppose abortion. The conference wrote an open letter and also wrote privately to the Supreme Court, reiterating the duty to value the inviolable gift of life.

In 2017, the conference stated, “It does not belong to any public authority to selectively recognize the right to life or who will live or die. This discrimination is evil and exclusionary.”

This article was originally published by our sister agency, ACI Digital. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.