Like most of the pregnant population in the Western Hemisphere, I’ve spent the past weeks unusually engrossed by the spread of the Zika virus. In case you have not been joining me in Googling “Zika” while clutching your baby bump in terror, here’s the gist: the virus, spread by mosquitoes and multiplying in the Americas at a rate the World Health Organization deems “explosive,” appears to be linked to an uptick of microcephaly in infants. In South and Central America, pregnant women are getting bitten by bugs (mosquitoes love to dine on pregnant women because we’re swollen with blood) and their babies are often arriving with tiny brains, the condition either ensuring they need a very advanced level of care or are unable to live long after birth. How exactly Zika causes microcephaly remains unclear, although we can assume the virus crosses the placenta.
On Tuesday, the WHO officially dubbed Zika “an international health emergency,” and the urgency with which it’s being addressed has tempted me to imagine that this crisis will force the right flank of the abortion debate from insanity to sanity, from callousness to empathy. It’s within reasonable hope that the circumstances around Zika could at least prompt the following question in future presidential debates: “Are you prepared to look at a woman who has been bitten by the wrong mosquito and tell her she has no option but to carry a micro-encephalitic fetus to term?”
After all, the element that brings this crisis from “emergency” into “totally fucking dystopian” realm is the fact that the virus is wreaking havoc in countries with dismal, even draconian approaches to abortion and contraception. In El Salvador, for instance, where women have just been told to avoid getting pregnant until 2018, abortion is punishable by jail sentences, which means miscarriages can be criminally investigated, while birth control and sex ed are hard to come by throughout the region. Even in Brazil, abortion is only legal in limited cases, and women whose babies have been born with microcephaly say they’ve been “abandoned by the state.”
Steph Herold of Sea Change, an organization that combats abortion stigma, calls the situation for women in many of these countries a “Catch-44”: “If you get pregnant, you’re stigmatized because you’re not supposed to reproduce in this environment; if you have an abortion, you’re stigmatized; and then there’s a lack of support if you have an unhealthy baby.”
The situation reads like a combination of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale with P.D. James’ Children of Men; women are being forced to get pregnant by government policy limiting family planning, while simultaneously being urged not to reproduce, with no help to that end. (Men are being given no behavioral guidelines, it should be noted, because governments seem to think men have nothing to do with pregnancy). Governments are entering gang-ridden areas to control mosquito populations, yet women’s control of their reproduction is barely being discussed.
Right now, pregnant American women are being warned not to travel to affected regions (so much for “babymoon” packages to the Caribbean). But when the weather heats up, projections indicate that Zika will make its way to the mainland United States. Count me among a likely large pregnant population starting to calculate exactly when mosquitoes will start buzzing near our homes. Now, as I watch the various preggo lady message boards I lurk on begin to blow up with concerns about the virus, I can see that this a worry that cuts across all demographics, possibly forcing more attention to abortion and its availability. Will Americans be satisfied with a government response that amounts to, “Ladies, wear your DEET?” And when something like a mere bug bite can endanger a fetus, can conservative politicians and clergy in the Rick Santorum school of thought comfortably assure a great many fearful citizens that the potential outcome, including a possible stillbirth, is an act of God?
Ideally, Zika might bring about an overdue series of political epiphanies: hey, the unpredictability of mosquito bites is like the unpredictability of life itself. That’s why abortion rights should be universal, right? It’s not impossible; as Sarah Zhang pointed out in WIRED last week, a rubella epidemic that required “therapeutic” abortions helped set the stage for Roe and the legalization of abortion back in the middle of the last century. Remember this spring when GOP candidates practically vaulted over each other, thumping their chests, to proclaim their enmity for Planned Parenthood and disapproval of abortion? That would look quite callous in the face of a nationwide health crisis, and might conceivably at least change the tone of the conversation.
But some of the activists I spoke to weren’t sure that that kind of awakening is possible in today’s Ted Cruz-friendly climate. They instead compared this potential outbreak to the early years of HIV/AIDS, in which (as has happened already in Central and South America) social prejudice hindered effective treatment. When the disease does arrive, it may demonstrate that the “Catch-44” Herold describes isn’t limited to other countries. While privileged women like me huddle near air conditioners with our windows shut, Zika could easily entrap American women in areas with standing water that breeds mosquitoes, closed clinics, no access to the later abortions a microcephaly diagnosis might require, and a patchwork system of healthcare.
Herold noted that separating “good” (Zika-infected) and less good (typical) abortion seekers into separate categories would only backfire and add to abortion’s stigma. And Pamela Merritt, co-founder of reproductive direct action group ReproAction, lives in Missouri, which she notes has a mosquito problem during much of the year and a healthcare policy problem during all of it. She compares the potential crisis of Zika to the current disaster in Flint, Michigan, calling it a “perfect storm” about to hit any warm state with bad policy on the books. “You can build all the walls you want on the border, but you’re not going to stop the mosquitoes from coming up,” she told me.
“I sincerely doubt that this is going to jumpstart the anti-abortion folks to rethink their policy, nor do I think that states that are refusing to expand Medicaid are going to suddenly wake up to the reality that health care policy needs to be proactive and that abortion is key to this,” Merritt added. “What you’re talking about is major states that are particularly vulnerable: they’ve been defunding family planning, they don’t have good health care.” And if the pregnancies do go to term, she notes from personal experience as the sister and guardian of an adult with a developmental disability: “These families are going to be caught up in the underfunded cycle that I’m dealing with with my autistic brother.”
Add one more factor to this total nightmare scenario: global warming. The Sierra Club’s A. Tianna Scozzaro notes that global warming, which facilitates the further spread of mosquito-borne viruses, hits low-income women the hardest, and that reproductive control is a major front in fighting that impact, whether it’s hundreds of sick babies or families having to pick up and move from areas affected by climate disasters. As always, these issues are intersectional, one indignity piling on another. Everyone may be equally terrified by Zika, but the less socioeconomic privilege people have, the more they are likely to get caught in that Catch-44—and if it’s not this virus, changing temperatures ensure that there will be another one. “By ensuring self-determination and access to reproductive rights we can prevent the health impact of a virus like this in the United States,” Scozzaro says. “When you look at who is being most impacted, it’s those who are least prepared to respond.”
Sarah M. Seltzer is a writer of fiction, journalism and criticism in New York City and the Editor-at-Large at pop culture website Flavorwire.
Image via AP