Zika has hit the United States. With creeping certainty, it crossed our borders, infecting women scattered across the country, and now the first American baby with Zika-linked microcephaly has been born in New Jersey. The White House has suggested that it would need $1.9 billion to effectively protect Americans against Zika virus. Still, Republicans in Congress have refused to allocated the necessary emergency funds to combat the disease and now, they've gone on a recess without taking necessary steps against Zika. Sure the United States hasn’t hit a full-blown Zika crisis (yet), but why would Congress ignore medical professionals’ warnings about the disease? It’s a move that suggests the GOP has an unmitigated indifference for the health of pregnant women in America. With women’s health specifically at risk, is it possible that the Zika funding delay is rooted in sexism? It’s an interesting theory.
In a New York Times op-ed, Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine, addressed the serious dangers of Zika infection for women. “If I were a pregnant woman living on the Gulf Coast or in Florida, in an impoverished neighborhood in a city like Houston; New Orleans; Miami; Biloxi, Mississippi; or Mobile, Alabama," he mused, "I would be nervous right now.”
The good news: Zika is relatively innocuous for people who aren’t pregnant. 80 percent of adults who contract Zika are asymptomatic. Those who do feel ill describe flu-like symptoms accompanied by a rash that pass in a week or so. Truthfully, the virus wouldn’t be that big of a deal except that it can be an incredibly worrisome if you are a woman and pregnant, or a woman is looking to get pregnant. If a pregnant woman contracts the mosquito-borne virus, it can result in miscarriage or microcephaly, a severe birth defect when a fetus’s brain and head develop abnormally. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, called the current Zika outbreak “an unprecedented situation.”
“Who cares?” many may ask. “I’m not a woman/I’m not planning on getting pregnant/etc.” All too often women’s health is treated as a niche subject (even though women make up 51 percent of the population), as health worker Chavi Eve Karkowsky discovered. True, only a small portion of the female half of Americans are currently pregnant. The CDC estimates that about one percent of the general population is pregnant at any given moment, so why should anyone else, let alone the government, care about pregnant women’s health issues?
In an article on The Daily Beast, Karkowsky explained why this line of thinking is particularly flawed. “That’s not the way a species works,” she writes. “We are humans, so we reproduce. You're human, so you were, once upon a time, born. So it may be that I take care of a pregnant women, but part of what I do is make sure their pregnancies are as healthy as possible.” In other words, caring about pregnant women’s health is caring about the health of everyone.
Discussions surrounding the Zika virus are strife with sexist undertones. To avoid unwittingly transmitting the disease to a broader sphere, officials in Zika-ravaged countries have been aiming a very specific piece of advice at women: Don’t get pregnant. New York Times foreign correspondent Azam Ahmed emphasized just how out of the ordinary this advice is, asking his readers, “When in human history has an epidemic become so alarming that a nation feels compelled to urge its women not to have children for two years?”
The directive is like something out of a Margaret Atwood novel and is obviously more than a little problematic. First off, it seems to suggest that women are solely responsible for conceiving. Women can’t get pregnant by themselves, so why aren’t officials encouraging men to be just as vigilant?
Second, in a lot of the countries struggling with Zika outbreaks birth control is notoriously hard to obtain. According to Global Citizen, countries like Colombia, El Salvador, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico have all advised women to avoid getting pregnant while retaining strict controls over the distribution of contraceptives and an adamantly opposing abortion. It is paradoxical that governments would urge women to avoid getting pregnant and not provide the tools necessary to prevent conception.
When the virus hits the United States in full force, it will be no different. Republicans have moved to defund Planned Parenthood a vital women’s health resource which would make it harder for many women to obtain contraceptives to prevent pregnancy. Then, if a woman does conceive and contract Zika, laws like the one passed in Indiana restrict abortions even in cases of birth defects. This would leave pregnant women with no choice but to give birth to a child with developmental problems, even if they cannot afford to take care of them.
Ignoring the “personal tragedy” of giving birth to a child with microcephaly, Frieden stressed the possible economic repercussions that could result from Congressional inaction. “We’re told by our experts that every one of these birth defects can have a cost of more than $10 million per lifetime,” he said in an interview with NPR’s Morning Edition. The likelihood that every afflicted child’s parents can afford to care for them is slim to none — it’s not like everybody has $10 million in their savings account. This means greater strain on public health and welfare programs, programs many Republicans want to see diminished.
Alicia Yamin, a lecturer on law and global health at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, emphasized that the lack of active response from authorities only highlights the powerlessness of women in the Americas. When it comes to Zika arriving in the United States, Yamin writes, women will be the ones who will face “the greatest consequences of the impacts of the lack of public health measures, inadequate social protection, and discriminatory laws and, to boot, may be blamed for ‘getting themselves pregnant.’”
Still, Congress is being obstinate and withholding the necessary emergency funds to combat Zika virus. According to Frieden, a budget of $1.9 billion, as suggested by the administration, would go towards mosquito control measures, developing a better diagnostic tools and a vaccine for the virus, and funding multiyear studies of women infected with Zika “to understand what the range of complications is and work to reduce that.”
Instead of granting the requested funds, House Republicans have instead revealed a plan to reallocate $622 million from other federal health programs for Zika response, $500 million of which will be redirected from the budget to combat Ebola. It is a move that many critics have slammed for being short-sighted. Frieden urged the government to return those funds so that the government can protect against Ebola. “We can’t get confused and let out guard down against one threat to fight the next one.” Democratic Senator Patty Murray, who put forth a bill with Republican Roy Blunt that would provide the White House with $1.1 billion for Zika protection, said, “When it comes to public health emergencies like Zika, robbing Peter to pay Paul just isn’t enough. I urge House Republicans to drop their irresponsible, partisan legislation and ensure the Senate bill gets to the President’s desk without delay.”
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest asserted that without the necessary emergency funds, public health officials are stuck with “the bureaucratic equivalent of digging through the sofa cushions to try and come up with the necessary money.”
The delay in funding to combat Zika suggests that either Congress doesn’t think the virus is anything worry about or that the risk to pregnant women and their babies doesn’t justify spending $1.9 billion. Poor women and girls who lack access to comprehensive sexual education and contraception are the most at risk and yet they often seem to be overlooked by legislators. The threat of Zika has unveiled the contradiction in conservative attitudes towards family planning and public welfare. They cannot withhold funds that would combat a potentially devastating disease in pregnant women, while limiting access to contraception and abortion.
It may seem as if Zika infection is a pregnant women’s health issue, or even just a women’s health issue, and therefore it is tempting for lawmakers to dismiss in a bout of sexism. Still, the case for action against Zika is overwhelming and, in reality, the repercussions of not combatting the disease as soon as it arrives in the United States will linger for years to come.