KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Many women in Latin America are facing some tough choices. There's an outbreak of Zika, which is a virus that can cause severe birth defects. Several countries in the region say women should delay pregnancy. But what if they're already pregnant? Many live in places where abortion is not legal, although millions of women still have them.
NPR's Nurith Aizenman reports on a new study that asks whether the Zika epidemic is pushing more women toward illegal abortions.
NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: When Zika started spreading through South America, several governments recommended that women avoid getting pregnant. Abigail Aiken is a health policy researcher at University of Texas at Austin, and she says she felt there was a disconnect. They were saying Zika was such a serious health threat you shouldn't even get pregnant, and yet if you were pregnant, they were saying Zika wasn't a serious enough health reason to consider an abortion. And that made her wonder.
ABIGAIL AIKEN: What are the impacts of these advisories and of Zika on what women want to do?
AIZENMAN: So she launched a study with a nonprofit called Women on Web. It's based in the Netherlands, and it's basically this online portal through which women all over the world can log on and request abortion medication.
AIKEN: Women on Web has doctors and a trained help desk team.
AIZENMAN: The doctor reviews the case and then potentially mails the woman drugs designed to induce abortion in early pregnancy. Aiken and her collaborators at Women on Web ran an analysis of every request for abortion pills that women in Latin America had made to the group over the last five years.
AIKEN: We had a very large sample. We had 28,670 requests in total over those five years.
AIZENMAN: And here's what they found. In the countries where Zika was getting the most attention and access to abortion is limited, the number of requests for abortion pills skyrocketed. In some cases, it more than doubled after Zika hit.
AIKEN: We did see an especially big increase in Brazil, and we suspect that that's partly because Brazil was exposed for the longest. You know, the epidemic happened there first.
AIZENMAN: Also up there were Ecuador, Venezuela, Honduras. The study did not see an increase in countries where governments had not issued advisories.
AIKEN: It seems as though women were responding not only to the threat of Zika but to the advisories issued by their governments.
AIZENMAN: The findings were published today in The New England Journal of Medicine, but Aiken and other experts caution there's a limit to how much you can conclude. Gilda Sedgh is with the Guttmacher Institute and co-author of one of the most definitive studies on abortion rates in Latin America.
GILDA SEDGH: About 6 and a half million abortions take place each year in the Latin America region, and the vast majority of them are illegal.
AIZENMAN: She notes that the abortions reported by Women on Web account for a tiny fraction, so their data offers only a glimpse of the full picture. So when it comes to abortions and Zika, she says, I think it's important that they've published this paper, but we really don't know. Nurith Aizenman, NPR News.
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