Don’t get pregnant.” Not now. Maybe not for two years.
This was the advice governments gave women in a number of South American countries when the connection was established between the Zika virus and microcephaly, a serious birth defect that can result in seizures and developmental delays. But details on how they were supposed to accomplish this in countries with limited access to contraception and strict abortion restrictions weren’t provided.
Now Zika has been locally transmitted in the continental United States. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention issued a similar warning, saying women and men who visit affected areas, including Wynwood in Miami, should wait at least eight weeks before trying to get pregnant.
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 healthcare. In fact, according to the Guttmacher Institute, in 2011, 73 percent of Florida’s counties had no abortion clinic. Florida has also failed to expand its Medicaid program, leaving many uninsured women with no access to contraception.
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How is a woman with no access to family planning supposed to keep herself from getting pregnant for eight weeks? Oh right, abstinence. We’re talking about Florida, after all, where schools are required to teach abstinence in sex-education classes but there is no requirement to include information about contraception.
We are already witnessing the perfect storm of mosquitos, virus and lack of access to reproductive health care. In Brazil, before the Zika outbreak, the country averaged 157 registered cases of microcephaly per year. Between Oct. 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. 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. Of the 25 states within the range of the two mosquitos that spread the Zika virus, according to CDC maps, 18 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 17 have state sex-ed guidelines that stress abstinence.
Now that the United States is facing its own battle with Zika, more attention will be paid to what it means to not have access to contraception and safe, legal abortions. The bottom line is 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 more than 30 print and online journals. She lives and writes in Bogota, Colombia.
©2016 Alice Pettway