The recent buzz about the Zika virus has raised concern not only for inhabitants of the most affected countries, but also their subsequent generations. With no known cure or vaccine, Zika has become a global health crisis due its ability to cause birth effects in vitro in infected pregnant women. Naturally, this has caused the Zika virus to draw the media’s attention to the scarcity of contraceptives in predominately Catholic countries in the affected regions. Women in these countries, almost all in Latin and Central America, are faced with a catch-22: though local governments strongly encourage women to avoid becoming pregnant due to the Zika virus until 2018, abortion remains illegal in every circumstance (even at risk of the mother’s life) and birth control is largely inaccessible.
According to the Center for Disease Control, the Zika virus spreads either through the Aedes Aegypti mosquito or by sexual contact with an infected person, and some speculate that the disease can also be passed through blood transfusions (Center for Disease Control, 2016). Although the symptoms (including fever, rash, muscle pain, and conjunctivitis) of the Zika virus are severe and painful, there have been no deaths as a result of the disease. Most of the worldwide concern stems from the susceptibility of infected pregnant women to spread the virus to their fetuses, resulting in a significant probability for birth defects. These defects can include Microcephaly (see picture)—a malformation of the head and brain due to decreased skull size—as well as long-term nerve damage, paralysis, and possibly even death (Center for Disease Control, 2016).
Due to the risk posed to pregnant women and their children, some governments in extremely exposed areas such as El Salvador, Jamaica, and Honduras, have been advising all women to avoid pregnancies until 2018, by which time the disease is expected to be contained (Partlow, 2016). With the pervasiveness of Roman Catholic influence and belief in this sphere of the world, the Pope has extremely helpful in aiding efforts to combat Zika’s spread, surprisingly supporting the use of birth control in this state of crisis. He has compared the situation with Zika and the corresponding birth defects to his “predecessor, Pope Paul VI, allow(ing) African nuns to use contraceptives ‘in cases of rape’”(Burke and Cohen, 2016), or as a choice between the lesser of two evils. In light of Pope Francis’s remarks, the problem facing victims of the virus seems to have less to do with Catholic dogma than with the availability of contraceptives. The worst case currently is Haiti, which has some of the worst access to contraception worldwide: 62% of women of reproductive age lack access to birth control (Szabo, 2016). Avoiding pregnancy seems like a reasonable idea due to the severe birth defects that can occur, but this leaves most women to choose between abstaining from sex for 2 years or putting their potential offspring in danger. Non-consensual sex is also a key issue, as about 5-15% of women in Latin America or the Caribbean report having been the victim of violence from a sexual partner (Szabo, 2016). The government’s recommendation thus seems highly unreasonable.
The ability of pregnant women infected with the virus to obtain abortions is perhaps the most controversial issue involved. “El Salvador has one of the world’s most draconian abortion statutes,” Erika Guevara-Rosas of Amnesty International wrote in a 2015 New York Times Op Ed (Krisch, 2016). The country criminalizes abortion in all circumstances, including when the mother’s life is at risk and in terms of rape. This strict prohibition forces women to resort to illegitimate and potentially dangerous abortion procedures. Some women even face the prospect of lengthy incarceration if the government deems a miscarriage to be intentional. The only way a sexually active woman without access to birth control can feasibly follow the government’s recommendations is by having a permanent procedure done such as tube ligation.
The Zika epidemic is a global crisis in the sense of public health, but also of women’s rights. Women living in countries such as the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, and Jamaica are not to bear unilateral blame for getting pregnant and risking the health of their offspring because they are victims of their harsh circumstances. These women live in an environment where their control over their bodies is severely restricted. Looking into the future, governments of countries in crisis need to do more than make recommendations, they need to stand up for their people and their future mothers, giving them the access to contraceptives and support they need during this state of emergency. Women who are already victims to a dangerous disease are simultaneously feeling the sting of gender inequality, which should not continue unaddressed.
Burke, D., & Cohen, E. (2016, February 18). Pope suggests contraceptives OK to slow Zika. Retrieved February 20, 2016, from http://www.cnn.com/2016/02/18/health/zika-pope-francis-contraceptives/
Krisch, J. A. (2016, January 25). What Happens When A Country Without Abortion Bans Pregnancy? Retrieved February 20, 2016, from http://www.vocativ.com/news/275592/el-salvador-pregnancy-ban/
Partlow, J. (2016, January 22). As Zika virus spreads, El Salvador asks women not to get pregnant until 2018. Retrieved February 20, 2016, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/as-zika-virus-spreads-el- salvador-asks-women-not-to-get-pregnant-until-2018/2016/01/22/1dc2dadc-c11f-11e5-98c8-7fab78677d51_story.html
Szabo, L. (n.d.). Zika highlights lack of access to contraception, abortion in Latin America. Retrieved February 20, 2016, from http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2016/02/02/zika-highlights-lack-access-contraception-abortion-latin-america/79640840/
Zika and Pregnancy. (2016, January 03). Retrieved February 20, 2016, from http://www.cdc.gov/zika/pregnancy/question-answers.html