Our knowledge of HIV/AIDS is continuously expanding 30 years into the AIDS epidemic. Researchers are discovering that–given the right treatment and precautions–people living with HIV can greatly reduce the risk of transmission to partners and can even safely conceive and give birth. Yet many health care providers in Central America are misguidedly pressuring HIV-positive women into sterilization.
Tamil Kendall, a Harvard School of Public Health research fellow with 10 years of experience in gender and HIV in Latin America, reports that “health care providers [in Central America] are expressing the view that living with HIV means that you don’t have reproductive rights, that you can’t choose the number and spacing of your children, that you can’t choose the contraceptive method that you would like to use.”
Kendall is the driving force behind a recently-published study on health care practices in El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico and Nicaragua, one which reveals antiquated attitudes toward HIV and troubling reproductive rights violations throughout the region.
The results show that, out of the 285 women studied across the four Central American countries, 23 percent have been pressured by health care professionals to go through a sterilization procedure. Rates in individual countries range from 20 percent in Nicaragua to 28 percent in Mexico. Additionally, only half of the women surveyed reported being told that an intervention in the form of antiretroviral drugs exists, which can reduce mother-to-child transmission of the virus by 98 to 99 percent.
Women with HIV are coerced by doctors and nurses unethically. Kendall reports that one Mexican woman was sterilized while under anesthetics during a Caesarian section. Another young mother from El Salvador claimed that doctors refused to perform a Caesarian until she consented to sterilization. Many women are told that another pregnancy will result in their own or their child’s death.
Kendall’s study reveals that socioeconomic status and ethnicity do not play a part in this kind of discrimination and that it is driven solely by an HIV-positive diagnosis.
Yet amid this troubling news, there is reason for optimism. As Kendall observes, “There is some promising research… indicating that health care providers are becoming increasingly aware of the possibility of preventing mother-to-child HIV transmission as well as sexual transmission with antiretroviral therapy—and that this knowledge is starting to transform attitudes.”
Moving forward, she recommends that health care providers be held accountable for their actions in courts, and that policy makers become aware of new research on HIV/AIDS and begin investing more in reproductive health and women’s rights.
– Kayla Strickland