Zika, Fear, and Recycling Oppression

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As Spring Break approaches, many of us are heading off on tropical vacations. Unfortunately, many of these destinations attract mosquitoes as well as college students.  Although mosquitoes are not in Cancun for the tequila, they continue to thrive and transmit the Zika virus.  Like many public health emergencies, the Zika outbreak has faded from the headlines.  As students travel to Zika hot zones and as warm weather returns, Zika remains a substantial concern.  

On November 28th, Texas state health officials announced a probable case of local transmission of the Zika virus.  Later that week, Texas finalized a rule requiring facilities that provide abortions to pay for the cremation or burial of fetal remains.  Although these events may not seem interconnected, the narrative of the Zika outbreak centers on reproductive health access, specifically abortion.  Because Zika virus can cause birth defects, including microcephaly, abortion rights activists seized Zika as an opportunity to advocate for removing barriers to abortion, in Texas, and around the world.  The proximity of the most recent Zika outbreak poses an increased risk to the United States and, as a result, secured significant media attention.  Due in part to the strict abortion policies of many Latin American countries, like Brazil, the media and abortion rights activists quickly turned to the potential of the Zika outbreak to liberalize abortion policy.  

Historically, within the United States, German measles outbreaks in the 1960s and early 1970s shifted perceptions of abortion.  Like Zika virus, German measles can cause severe birth defects.  Outbreaks of German measles in pre-Roe America expanded access to abortion beyond cases where the life of the mother was at risk, to cases where the fetus was assumed to have severe developmental defects.  Although outbreaks of German measles led to the expansion of abortion access, and arguably heralded eventual legalization of abortion nationally,  this expanded access to bodily autonomy came at the expense of the disabled community.   American experiences with German measles established an ideology that no parent would want a child with a disability, an assumption that demonstrates a lack of respect for people with disabilities.   

Because advocacy emphasizing children with disabilities successfully expanded abortion access in the United States, it is not surprising that modern pro-choice advocates are using similar tactics to expand abortion access in many Latin American countries.  At issue are both the right of a person to exercise their autonomy and the struggle people with disabilities face justifying their existence.  Reproductive rights advocates in the United States and globally have seized upon the fear of Zika to attempt to confront barriers to abortion access like the new fetal remains rule in Texas.  The depiction and rhetoric of the prenatal effects of Zika employed by pro-choice advocates potentially undermines the lives of people with microcephaly.  Many people could benefit from learning about the realities of raising a child with disabilities.  However, state laws that compel providers to present inaccurate medical information, enforce mandatory waiting periods, and dictate the means of disposal of fetal remains threaten the provider’s autonomy and the autonomy of pregnant persons.  In the context of current state-based abortion policy, the possibility of educating potential parents is burdened with the legacy of reproductive oppression.                     

Still, the reproductive rights community has neglected to address how advocacy for less restrictive abortion policies on the basis of fetal abnormality in areas with local transmission of Zika diminishes the value of the lives of people with microcephaly and other disabilities.  When a provider diagnoses a fetus with microcephaly, a parent who chooses not to terminate their pregnancy may be stigmatized and the child may lack sufficient resources to thrive.  Too often in abortion debates, especially in the United States, the only ethical consideration is whether a fetus has autonomy and, if a fetus has autonomy, at what point that autonomy begins to exist.  Within the framework of Zika, reproductive rights advocates, like myself, are challenged to consider the broader effects of our arguments and actions.  While a person’s reasons for accessing an abortion should not be questioned, the fear-mongering of abortion rights groups as a tactic to increase access to reproductive health care risks oppressing another group of people.  Since people seeking abortions face somewhat similar oppressions in gaining control of their bodies as people with disabilities, reproductive justice activists should understand that utilizing oppressive arguments to gain greater personal autonomy will not create an environment where the autonomy of every person is respected.


Brinna Ludwig (NHS ’17) is a co-president of H*yas for Choice.

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