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Coraliz Dones, who tested positive for Zika when she was 7 months pregnant, talks to midwife Michelle Perez-Chiques at a birth clinic on September 2, 2016 in Carolina, Puerto Rico. (Angel Valentin/Getty Images)


The public health threat that reveals the attacks on women’s rights

October 27, 2016

For women, being pregnant on purpose is in many ways a great equalizer, and an ultimate common denominator. If and when we choose to get pregnant, all of us want nothing more than to deliver healthy, happy children. After years of trying, I gave birth to twins last year, and I’m so blessed that they’ve grown into healthy and happy (if exhausting) 1-year-olds. Over the last few months, two of my cousins — both of whom are like sisters to me — gave birth. One lives in Texas, and the other lives in New York. And since my twins are still toddlers themselves, I could easily relate to them about the common anxieties that pregnancy presents. We all wonder: Am I eating enough protein? Was that work out too intense? (Or more often: should I be exercising more?) What was that weird spot in the sonogram? But my cousins and so many other women in their situation have to face a scary new threat that never even registered for me: the threat of the Zika virus.

Since Zika became a real threat to Americans 10 months ago, pregnant women and women considering pregnancy have faced an entirely new anxiety: delivering a child with microcephaly, a debilitating and often life-threatening birth defect more likely to occur in children infected with Zika in utero. As women have been forced to confront this anxiety, their lawmakers in Washington have waved it away and didn’t take action to address the crisis for close to a year. Why? The politics of women’s health.

Based on the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other medical experts, any response to the Zika crisis should include support for family planning clinics that can advise patients on the risks of the virus and help them delay pregnancy given the threat of microcephaly, if they so choose. But lawmakers who oppose a woman’s right to choose — and have acted to restrict reproductive health care in the past — refused to pass legislation that addressed the crisis as long as support for family planning clinics was included. Some even said that they would not support abortion access for a woman infected with Zika, even though this means her fetus has a higher risk of debilitating microcephaly. So for close to a year, funding to respond to Zika was not passed. During that time, the number of cases of Zika in the United States went from zero to 25,000.

Despite so much talk about gridlock in Washington, we still like to believe that some things rise above the typical partisan bickering. But if this public health crisis doesn’t, what does? This callous disregard for the fear, safety, and wellbeing of women of childbearing age by those in power surprised me.

But maybe it shouldn’t have.

Zika is a public health crisis that has unmasked a political crisis and put constant political attacks on women’s health care into focus. It has personalized what has so far been a theoretical issue to so many people who have never experienced getting bad news about a pregnancy. The searing question that dominates my thoughts as a mom — and the thoughts of so many other moms — is if the unthinkable happened, and I were to get that diagnosis, who would I want in the driver’s seat of controlling my options? The answer is abundantly clear: me and my husband, with my trusted doctor advising us based on diagnostic tests that only she has access to. Last on the list of people I want involved in my decision-making is a politician sitting in an office far away who has no knowledge of my personal situation.

And polls show I am not alone: Over 60 percent of Americans surveyed believe that a woman herself should be able to make the decision about whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term after being diagnosed with Zika, regardless of the laws in that state or how far along the pregnancy is.

The question that remains is whether this emerging awareness about the lengths that some will go to dominate women’s decision making will be the tipping point that puts some sanity back into our political discourse and reminds Americans that it’s time to trust women again with our own reproductive decision making.

There’s reason to be hopeful. Zika has put a focused lens on a skewed debate and in doing so has done some myth busting about reproductive freedom in our country.

The first myth:  Bad girls get abortions, good girls have families.

False. We are the same women making different decisions at different times in our lives. According to the most recent data, one in three women in America will have an abortion before the age of 45. Six in 10 of us are already mothers trying to take care of the families we already have. The reasons for terminating unintended pregnancy are numerous and range from contraception failure to fetal anomalies to terrible breakups. Every pregnancy has a story and politicians know almost none of them. Zika has made it clear that the need to terminate a pregnancy has nothing to do with the character of the person carrying it.

The second myth: Anti-choice politicians just want to reduce the number of abortions in this country.

Mostly false. Most politicians who vote to make legal abortion practically inaccessible also vote to keep the cost of contraception high and access to it low. They fought Obamacare’s provision that mandated insurance coverage of abortion care and opposed legislation that would prevent your boss from getting to decide which form of birth control you use. Most have also fought commonsense policies that provide support for working moms and nutritional assistance for kids living in poverty. Such measures collectively would reduce unintended pregnancy and make sure that no one is terminating a pregnancy out of fear of not being able to adequately care for a wanted child. Yet they are opposed by the majority of anti-choice politicians who are less concerned with reducing abortion than taking the power of decision making out of a woman’s hands. The Zika crisis brought these divergent priorities into crystal clear focus when anti-choice politicians fought funding for clinics that provide medical advice and contraception to those most vulnerable to the disease.

The third myth: I could never be in that position.

False. So much of our ability to get reproductive healthcare has been determined by the intersection of geography and financial status. States have a patchwork of laws that determine everything from how far you have to travel to get to a clinic to how much you have to pay to when abortion services stop being available to you. All of these restrictions are determined by politicians driving an ideological agenda, not by the women they represent or medical experts making decisions based on evidence. While there has been a growing awareness of this trend nation-wide, the impact of this overreach is often felt in disparate ways depending on where you live and how much money you have.

Zika is different. Mosquitos can bite anyone, no matter how much you make or where you live. And if you are unlucky enough to live in one of the eighteen states where abortions are illegal after 20-weeks of gestation, by the time you find out you are infected and consult with your doctor about possible effects on your pregnancy, you’re probably out of options — because your politicians have decided for you.

The numbers on these issues are clear. The vast majority of Americans believe in women having access to abortion and contraception in order to make the best and most informed decisions about how and when we grow our families. Zika has unmasked the great hypocrisy of the anti-choice politicians who claim they just want to “protect the unborn.” But their failure to address the Zika crisis for months with a response that includes support for women’s health exposes that it’s not about “protecting the unborn” after all. It’s about taking a woman’s decision making power out of her hands, and putting a politician in the driver’s seat. Their inaction put women’s health — and the health and life of the children they may wish to have — at risk.

Like getting pregnant, Zika is a great equalizer for women who now must consider: what would I do if pregnant and infected with Zika? Who would I want controlling my options? The answer isn’t your Senator, and that answer remains the same for seven in 10 Americans even when Zika isn’t a threat.

Ilyse Hogue has been the President of NARAL Pro-Choice America since January 2013. She is an expert in both electoral and advocacy campaigns who has worked with a variety of nonprofit organizations, including Friends of Democracy, Media Matters for America and She has worked to organize constituencies in service of social-justice outcomes from environmental sustainability to human rights to media reform and representation throughout her career.