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“Don’t get pregnant.” Not now. Maybe not for the next eight months. Maybe not for two years.
This was the advice women in a number of South American countries received when the connection between Zika and microcephaly—a serious birth defect that can result in seizures and developmental delays—was verified as the virus swiftly spread across the continent. Details about just how women were supposed to accomplish this in countries with limited access to contraception and strict abortion restrictions weren’t included in the government’s recommendations.
Now Zika has been locally transmitted in the continental United States for the first time. The Center for Disease Control issued a similar warning:
“women and men who traveled to this area should wait at least eight weeks before trying to get pregnant”
“pregnant women who live in or frequently travel to this area should be tested in the first and second trimester of their pregnancy.”
Perhaps the CDC hasn’t considered what these recommendations mean to people in Florida—a state that received a grade of F from NARAL Pro-Choice America for restricting access to reproductive health care. In fact, 73 percent of Florida counties have no abortion clinic. According to a recent infographic released by the Center for American Progress, Florida has also failed to expand its Medicaid program, leaving many uninsured women with no access to contraception.
And what exactly is a woman to do in Florida if, per CDC recommendations, she is tested during the first two trimesters of her pregnancy and finds that she has been infected with Zika? Florida bans plans that cover abortion from its state insurance exchange and restricts low-income and young women’s access to abortion.
How is a woman with no access to family planning meant to keep herself from getting pregnant for eight weeks? Oh yes, abstinence. We’re talking about Florida after all, where, according to a Guttmacher Institute report, the state has ordered schools to teach abstinence, but there is no requirement to include information about contraception in sex ed classes.
We have already seen a perfect storm of mosquitos, virus, and lack of access to reproductive health care. The world watched it happen in Brazil, where before the Zika outbreak, the country reported on average 157 registered cases of microcephaly per year. Between October 22, 2015 and July 23, 2016, there were 1,749 confirmed cases.
It’s impossible to predict exactly how Zika transmission will play out in the United States, but we have some good clues—and they’re alarming.
The CDC considers areas that have had outbreaks of chikungunya and dengue—viruses transmitted by the same mosquitos that spread Zika—to be at high risk of a Zika outbreak. In the continental United States, those areas are Florida and Texas. Texas, like Florida, got a grade of F on NARAL’s reproductive rights report—only 7 percent of counties have an abortion clinic. The state also restricts low-income and young women’s access to abortion, and has failed to adopt a Federally financed Medicaid expansion.
Unfortunately, the problem doesn’t end with Texas and Florida. The CDC has released maps showing the range of the two mosquito species that spread Zika (Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus) in the United States. Of the twenty-five states that are within the range of both species, eighteen received Fs from NARAL Pro-Choice America on their reproductive rights status. Thirteen do not require contraception to be discussed in sex ed classes, and seventeen have state sex ed guidelines that stress abstinence.
South American governments have dragged their heels, along with much of the world, on birth control and abortion for many years. They waited until Zika—and microcephaly—were already out of hand before they started conversations about providing services to pregnant women who might be affected by the virus. Once the seriousness of the situation was clear, even the Pope backpedaled on the Church’s position on contraception, telling reporters that "avoiding a pregnancy is not an absolute evil. In certain cases, as in this one ... it is clear." Unfortunately, in the same breath, he made it clear the church still did not support abortion.
It shouldn’t take the threat of thousands of babies being born with a debilitating medical condition to make the world address reproductive rights—but it seems like that is exactly what it takes.
Now that the United States is facing its own battle with Zika, there will be more people who want to talk about what it means to not have access to contraception. Fewer will want to talk about abortion care.
The bottom line is this: Zika will come and go, the need for strong protection of women’s reproductive rights will not.
Alice Pettway is a poet and writer whose work has appeared in over 30 print and online journals. Currently, she teaches creative writing in Bogotá, Colombia.