February 08, 2016

There seems to be no dispute that ZIKV is transmitted by the Aedes species mosquitoes, which also spread the dengue and chikungunya viruses. Medical experts conclude that ZIKV causes a mild illness with fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis, with symptoms usually lasting under a week. However, the real problems come with pregnancy. The virus can spread to the foetus and cause brain shrinkage, a condition called Microcephaly, which severely limits a child's intellectual and physical development or even death.

Microcephaly can lead to "a significant volume loss of brain tissue" and "complete loss of the use of their limbs". There is no way to return a child's head to a normal size or shape. Just imagine a generation of children who are highly functional but with intellectual disabilities, and still others who are profoundly disabled, in wheelchairs with limited ability to communicate and being fed through gastric tubes.

The topic that is now impatient of debate, arising from all this, is whether there should be enactment of abortion laws to allow for potential parents, with the help of medical opinion and counselling, along with other necessary safeguards, to abort the pregnancy, if the said pregnancy is likely to produce a child with the dreaded effects of ZIKV.

Right around the globe, save for a few countries, the debate is raging in the streets, on the back verandahs of the rich and famous and in the nooks and crannies of rustic communities all over, but not in the Parliaments that have the responsibility to debate this important topic and to make laws in response to what is now a global emergency.

This must be done because persons may be driven underground to procure their own solution to what they perceive to be a rather scary situation. Women labouring with the thoughts of having a 'ZIKV baby' may be tempted to breach section 72 of the Offences Against the Person Act [hereinafter called "the Act"] which makes it a criminal offence to administer drugs or use instruments to procure an abortion.

The penalty for those who are found guilty is imprisonment for life. Similarly, section 73 of the said Act provides for imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years for those found guilty of unlawfully procuring poison or instrument intended to be unlawfully used or employed to procure the miscarriage of any woman.

Women may also breach section 74 of the Act by concealing the birth of a child, and this would attract a penalty of up to two years' imprisonment upon conviction. Persons could well be tempted to commit even more serious offences out of sheer desperation and panic.

In light of all this, it seems that the time has come for our Parliament to make appropriate provisions for the abortion of a foetus, if it is likely that the child could be born with physical and/or mental disabilities arising from ZIKV. Of course, this would have to be done under very strict guidelines. The new Parliament, when sworn in after the general election, should make this matter one of utmost priority.

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