New Topic, Old Conversation: How the Zika virus discourse still ignores the rights of women

By Simone Harstead, Beloit College

The Zika virus, officially a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, has become a commonly known health problem.  However, it has been identified as having a “silver lining,” because it can further the fight for reproductive rights by helping women gain access to contraception and abortion, but the current discourse will not result in creating meaningful change.

The virus is fueling international controversy around the strict abortion bans and lack of reproductive rights that affect women’s lives every day.  Recently, the Pope suggested the usage of contraceptives in order to combat Zika while he was on a trip to Mexico, although it was not a very concrete voice of support because the Vatican later released a statement reiterating the ban on abortion.  Most Catholic leaders have insisted that the spread of the virus does not change their opinion on banning contraception and that instead, women should abstain from sex or use family planning techniques.

There is no denying that the Zika Virus has been the cause of numerous health and social problems for many people, such as pressure to not get pregnant until 2018 and the potential of microcephaly for newborns who contract the disease.   However, the virus has also generated necessary discussions about the lack of reproductive rights for women living in Latin America. These discussions are causing the religious leaders who continue to ban contraceptives to appear more antiquated, and women seeking out contraceptives and/or abortions are receiving more positive representation in the media.

It is extremely important that people see the benefits of making abortions and contraceptives accessible. However, the problematic thread in all of these conversations is that these initiatives are only generated when the health of a fetus or infant is in danger, rather than to address a woman’s needs.  A woman’s right to an abortion should not solely depend on the child’s chances of contracting a virus. It is her fundamental right to choose what she wants to do with her body.

Responding to questions about the Zika virus, the Executive Director of U.N. Women Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka expressed that “‘it’s important to rethink the extent to which the rights of women in those countries, reproductive rights of women need to be advanced because it could provide us with the solution, not only because of Zika but also because it’s the right thing to do.’”  She understands that the need for reproductive rights goes far beyond the Zika virus, and can be questioned on a much deeper level by addressing the oppression of women that is felt around the world with or without the virus.

There is extensive data available on maternal health and the importance of reproductive rights.  A 2012 study, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, estimated that 342,000 women worldwide died of maternal causes in 2008, and that 272,000 deaths were prevented through their access to contraceptives.  The study also shows that through satisfying the unmet needs for contraception 104,000 deaths could be prevented every year.  Illegal abortions are costly, too: 47,000 women die from complications of unsafe abortion every year, and many more are left injured and/or disabled.

We need to change the discourse of the current conversation to address reproductive rights as a necessity beyond the reach of the Zika virus.  A woman has the right to contraceptives and abortion, not solely because there is a risk of her spreading a virus to her unborn child, but because she deserves autonomy over her body and choices for her future.

Imagine a future in which women are granted more reproductive rights in reaction to the Zika virus, causing the virus to lessen as a threat.  The religious and political elites will then be able to retract those gained rights because fetuses will no longer be at risk.  How can women be ensured reproductive rights for the future when those rights are based solely off of the virus?  There will be sustainable, long-term change if reproductive rights are granted on the basis of women’s rights, and not just a current health scare.

So what are the next steps?  It is still very important to take immediate action that will alleviate the potential damage that the Zika virus has done and will do.  The affected fetuses and children deserve any and all medical care, and women in Zika-affected areas should receive the appropriate contraceptives and abortions necessary.  However, in order to entrench the rights of women, it is imperative to line arguments for reproductive rights with cognizance of women’s health and autonomy to create sustainable change.


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