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Tags: Health

The Three Letter Word Missing From the Zika Virus Warnings

Once again, the burden of sexual and reproductive accountability falls squarely (and solely) on women.
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Hard to believe that just a few weeks ago, hardly anyone had heard of the Zika virus or the condition to which it is now suspected to be linked. Microcephaly is a rare congenital condition where infants are born with undersized craniums. Though Zika’s exact relationship, if any, to this lifelong condition has yet to be determined, WHO has declared Zika a global emergency, and government officials in Brazil,  Colombia, Ecuador and El Salvador are “advising women to avoid getting pregnant, for fear that the fast-spreading Zika virus may cause severe brain defects in unborn children.” Officials outside affected countries in Latin America and the Caribbean are advising women to “avoid traveling“ to those areas.

Notice anything odd about these warnings? No? Let’s continue:

As many commentators have pointed out, it seems mind boggling that countries without contraception, and where abortion is illegal even in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother, are now recommending that women stop having babies for at least two years, or until medical researchers have a better understanding of Zika’s impact on developing fetuses. Human rights advocates and health workers have rightly pushed back against those recommendations. “Even if women attempt to follow the recommendations through abstinence,” writes Charlotte Alter for Time, “sexual violence is so pervasive throughout the region that many women may get pregnant against their will.”

Here is the problem: All of these warnings to women about getting pregnant have managed to avoid a particular word. That word is “men.”

Rather than telling women to “avoid pregnancy” in the manner of avoiding a pothole, why are none of these assorted agencies telling men to stop having procreative sex until we know more about Zika? Why does the very suggestion of any government recommending men to practice abstinence for two years seem like a joke? The cultural reflex to hold women accountable for male lust and subsequent reproduction is so ingrained that we don’t even notice the asymmetry. Indeed, it strikes the domesticated mind as verging on unreasonable to hold men morally responsible when pregnancy is unwelcome, unwanted, or, in the case of the Zika virus, a potential public health disaster. Yet women do not “get pregnant.” Men impregnate them. Most times, and in most places, the old fashioned sex way, the kind that made Barbarella’s hair stand on end.

Biologically speaking, there’s really no getting around the fact that female eggs require male sperm in order for fertilization to occur. And yet, the phrase, “she’s gotten herself pregnant” is so commonplace that it passes without question. Note that it implies the woman became pregnant all by herself, even though there hasn’t been a miraculous pregnancy recorded since Jesus Christ and that lady named Mary on a cheeky episode of “House, M.D.” Why, then, is pregnancy repeatedly framed as an act of bodily will on the sole part of the woman?

Even when men are on trial for rape, the burden on women to avoid pregnancy is so strong that a man was acquitted after he claimed that he tripped and his penis fell into the vagina of a sleeping 18-year-old woman. In finding him not guilty, the jury reinforced the cultural narrative that the onus is always on the woman to get out of the dick’s way. It’s the same reason why Todd Akin thought that  “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down” in case of pregnancy via rape, because a collective cultural discourse overtly conveys the idea that pregnancy is a primordial act of female will – something that the uterus just does, performing the dream of self-fertilization, sort of like the lady reptiles morphing into males and fertilizing his/her eggs in “Jurassic Park.” So in Akin’s mind, women get themselves pregnant, as females are wont to do, and therefore can make themselves un-pregnant by thinking really hard about it. (What man? Where?)

Scientist may know the biology of reproduction, but the moral framework around sex and pregnancy isn’t much different than it was six centuries ago, when French physician Ambroise Paré wrote of child born with a ”frog head” because its mother had held a frog in her hand. The reflex to blame women’s behavior for birth defects partakes of this superstitious world governed by “sympathies,” where the mere sight of a startling creature could prompt a pregnant woman to give birth to a monster. Ha ha? We laugh at our peril, for the primary vector of Zika, a mosquito, has become the real-life embodiment of the alien bugs of the film, “Starship Troopers,” and must be obliterated from the face of this planet lest they devastate the population.

That’s a familiar adversarial stance with clean lines between "us" and "them," but it won’t work for a variety of reasons, including the fact that the monster is now human. With remarkable swiftness, the vectors have shifted, and the US has just documented its first case of Zika that was not transmitted via mosquitoes but by sex with an infected person.

So now what? Pope Francis has recently faulted the church for “focusing too much on gays, abortion and contraception, saying the church has become ‘obsessed’ with those isses to the detriment of its larger mission.” Authorities in Zika affected countries are nonetheless sticking by their anti-contraception, anti-abortion stance, even though it has already meant nearly 4,000 infants born with an incapacitating birth defect in Brazil alone, and concentrated in remote communities with scant resources to care for profoundly disabled children. Beyond the practical issues that must immediately be faced, the long-term challenge is to address the shifting realities of sex and reproduction in a global 21st century, with the moral agenda shifted away from controlling women to alleviating human suffering.

We are facing a grim calculus. As writer Robin Marty notes: “Sexually transmitted or just the regular mosquito form, if Zika really does spread into the U.S we are going to see the real impact of the mass of 20 week bans that have been passed in this country, especially the ones that don't allow for fetal anomaly exceptions and that mandate that the fetus be delivered ‘in a method to make it most compatible with life.’ These are going to be some heartbreaking stories, and I hope the public is ready to deal with them.”



Paula Young Lee is a cultural historian, food writer, and backwoods cook. Her latest book is "Deer Hunting in Paris: A Memoir of God, Guns, and Game Meat." Follow her on Twitter @paulayounglee
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