Congress Doesn’t Care About Zika, But It Sure As Shit Cares About Abortion

We’ve changed abortion laws across the globe for very similar reasons. Will it happen again?

Sep 22 2016, 5:02pm

A baby with microcephaly in Brazil. Image: Sumaia Villela/Agencia Brasil

Moral panic over abortion is allowing the Zika virus to spread. But as much as the government likes to control women and their bodies, we've succeeded in changing abortion laws before.

There are almost 21,000 cases of Zika in the United States, and around 120,000 confirmed cases across the world. Yet the US government is still arguing over a bill that would release $1.1 billion to fight the mosquito-borne virus, largely because right-wing politicians can't get over moral and political disagreements about family planning, whether it's abortion access or birth control.

Global views on abortion continue to dictate how we treat any public health epidemics that affect women and their uteruses. But if history, both in the US and Brazil, has a lesson for us, it's that once in awhile, medicine trumps ideology.

Back in 1942, the rubella virus was linked to birth defects for the very first time. An Australian ophthalmologist, Norman Gregg, noticed that a rubella outbreak led to many children with congenital cataracts in their eyes, caused by maternal infection. Soon after, rubella was also found to cause deafness, heart defects and mental disabilities.

Once in awhile, medicine trumps ideology.

At this point, abortion in the US was still illegal (Roe vs. Wade didn't pass until 1973). But then there was a rubella outbreak in the 1960s. A loophole in criminal law allowed "therapeutic abortion", so doctors begin to administer them to women with rubella, paving the way for legislative changes ten years later.

Like rubella, the Zika virus is closely intertwined with reproductive health. It can be sexually transmitted between partners, and passed down from mother to fetus. And while it could also cause brain damage in adults, Zika is most dangerous for a pregnant woman since it puts the baby at high risk for microcephaly, a birth defect that results in babies having smaller heads and brains.

That fear has led some women to terminate their pregnancy in the US and abroad. In Latin America, abortion requests rose by anywhere from 36 percent to 108 percent. Women have also turned to illegal abortion services in the face of the threat, especially in Zika-riddled countries like Brazil, where abortion is banned except in the case of rape, or if it puts the mother's life in danger, as Motherboard reported earlier this year.

"The majority of our politicians identify as evangelicals, they talk in the name of God, not in the name of rights or democracy," Debora Diniz, a professor and activist in Brazil, told me.

Along with her reproductive rights group, Anis, Diniz has demanded that the Supreme Court of Brazil change abortion laws for women infected with Zika. The case, filed at the end of August, demands that women with Zika have the right to terminate a pregnancy, and that the families grappling with the virus receive access to a cash benefit program.

Debora Diniz. Image: Anis

Diniz, who recently authored a book on Zika, is not a rookie. In 2004 she helped change the Brazilian Penal Code laws on abortion for the first time in decades. She argued that doctors in Brazil should be able to administer abortions in the case of anencephaly, a disorder that results in babies being born without portions of their brains, skulls and scalp. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the change, and Brazil's strict criminalization of abortion was eased for the first time since 1940.

If the current case wins due to the frame of a continuing Zika epidemic, it could set the precedent for other countries caught between their legislation and public health.

Here in the US, Democrats refuse to pass the bill to fund Zika efforts because Republicans wrote a provision barring any of those funds to reach Planned Parenthood-associated centers in Puerto Rico working with Zika patients, since the organization also administers birth control and abortion services. This makes pretty much everyone angry: the people waiting on funds to curb a rampant virus, and those who don't want politicians to decide what women do with their bodies.

"Zika is a sexually transmitted disease," said Dr. Raegan McDonald-Moseley, Planned Parenthood's chief medical officer. "Birth control and condoms are an important defense. This is beyond just a political fight for us. The Zika crisis is very much an issue we care about and is related to the work we do across the country related to sexual and reproductive health."

In the face of Republican opposition—which started well before Zika hit the US this year—Planned Parenthood has lobbied to receive its share of funding, arguing that states that crack down on abortion services have put women's lives in danger.

"This is beyond just a political fight for us."

Currently, the Planned Parenthood chapters in Florida operate without state or national funding. And their Zika efforts have not been focused on abortion—in Florida, the first state to have locally transmitted Zika, Planned Parenthood launched a bilingual campaign to promote awareness, with the goal of reaching 25,000 households. A spokeswoman told me they will have to stretch their resources to continue their work. The Senate is set to vote again on Tuesday.

Read more: How the Zika Virus Is Fueling The Abortion Debate in Brazil

"We'll be here for the community if and when they need [abortion services]," said Melissa St. Onge, a communications consultant for the organization's Florida chapter.

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