Holding up the Mirror: Zika
My late father used to let mosquitoes feed on his arm. My brother remembers it was an uncharacteristically macho thing for our mild-mannered scientist parent to do. But, after all, he was a mosquito warrior, a microbiologist trained and ready to do battle with these insects that cause so much disease, misery, and death around the world.
As my father’s daughter, I have—metaphorically—mosquito-borne viruses in my blood. The consciousness of inequities around who has access to prevention and treatment is also a part of my legacy from him. With a special sensitivity because of my professional ministry with the UU Women’s Federation and also, more acutely, our recent UU statement of conscience to the intersection of race, class, and gender in reproductive rights and beyond to the full scope of reproductive justice. “Consciousness of inequity” is a term created by women of color in 1994 to, in their words, “center the experience of the most vulnerable… the inequality of opportunities they have to control their reproductive destiny.”
So I began following the growing stream of reports out of Brazil last year about a disease called Zika that has frankly preoccupied me—despite and perhaps especially in this most difficult year for defending access to basic reproductive health services.
In the midst of all this there is the reappearance of a seemingly obscure disease, originally thought to be transmitted primarily by the bite of an infected Aedes species of, yes, mosquito. The disease was first discovered in l974 in the Zika Forest in Uganda, Africa, and was cropping up in a growing number of countries south of our borders. Epidemic viruses are not new. We have had an Ebola scare and a West Nile disease incursion in recent years. What is new with Zika and it has taken a while to prove, is that this is the first known virus that causes a serious birth defect in a fetus – microcephaly – which may stunt a growing brain.
Never before, the director of the national Centers for Disease Control says, has a bite from a mosquito caused such a malformation. And it is now evident that Zika can be sexually transmitted as well.
Women who might be pregnant or are trying to become pregnant are told to avoid travel to affected countries. Women who live in some of those 61 countries and territories where the virus has already struck have been advised to delay pregnancies – continued pregnancies in any case – for up to two full years. For whom is that practical, even possible? How rich or poor might one have to be? How privileged or unprivileged? How oppressed or free?
Asking women to delay pregnancy without offering the necessary information, contraceptives, or access to abortion is a reproductive injustice. While contraceptives are legal in Brazil, access to them is difficult for women in poor, rural, and other marginalized communities. In other countries with Zika, such as El Salvador, birth control other than abstinence is prohibited. This is a reproductive injustice. There is little or no sexuality education in the schools, which would help teach about protection and pregnancy delay. This is a reproductive injustice. The onus for preventing pregnancy is on women, while at least 30 percent of Latin American women report intimate partner sexual violence, including rape. This is a reproductive injustice.
In countries like Brazil, abortion is legal only in cases of maternal endangerment, raped and a handful of other situations—and is not legal in the case of carrying a fetus with neurological birth defects. Any other abortion is subject to imprisonment, while millions of women have them, often unsafely, anyway. Even while the United Nations – looking at the charter of human rights – has declared that, especially at this time, safe, legal, and available abortion is an international mandate. To not do so is a reproductive injustice.
If women bear children with serious medical problems, they are most often left to care for them alone for the rest of their lives. This too is a reproductive injustice.
As world citizens, these reproductive injustices in places outside our borders should call us to outrage and action. Beyond this, the situation for these millions of women in places like Brazil and El Salvador also hold up a mirror for this country as well if and when Zika sweeps through our gulf coast states as some have predicted. It will attack in places with the fewest resources and, like Brazil, with some of the harshest anti-choice laws. States like Florida, with the most confirmed cases of Zika so far. Alabama. Mississippi. Texas.
States that have passed among the most draconian laws regulating abortion and have attempted to shut down family planning centers. States where the rates of unintended pregnancy – failure to use effective means of birth control – are staggering. In Texas it is more than half. In Florida, 60 percent.
In our national climate the current House majority passed a long overdue Zika-fighting funding bill along with an amendment prohibiting use of any money for contraception – even condoms – and for the providers of birth control services, most explicitly Planned Parenthood. A national climate in which the House majority party has proposed once more to eliminate Title X – the national family planning program which provides low cost sexual health programs to more than four million patients and prevents more than a million unwanted pregnancies a year.
The reproductive justice statement of conscience we UUs adopted last year is deeply based in our Unitarian Universalist values of sacred sexuality, inherent worth and dignity, reverence for not only the value of life itself but also for the quality of life, the right of conscience, and justice and compassion in human relations. These values call us to support the black feminist principles that would fiercely protect individual human agency, trusting that every woman – all women – should be able to make important decisions about their bodies, their families, and communities without interference from those who would undermine the right to self-determination.
These principles should be upheld to protect whatever Zikas – whatever extraordinary or ordinary choices – we may be faced with.
Click here to read a sermon on the Zika virus.