On Tuesday, over fifty students and members of the Yale community gathered at the Yale Law School to discuss whether or not governments should exercise control over women’s reproductive rights in context of the Zika virus.
The panel discussion, which was titled “Zika and its impact on reproductive rights,” was led by Yale School of Public Health professor Albert Icksang Ko; Jennifer Friedman, associate director of abortion and community programs at the International Planned Parenthood Federation; and Sebastián Rodríguez Alarcón, legal and advocacy fellow for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Center for Reproductive Rights. The three panelists aimed to address the recently declared public health emergency of the Zika virus — a virus that is transmitted by mosquitos and has been found to cause defects in the fetuses of pregnant women who have been infected— and how Latin American governments’ responses have affected women’s rights.
“This has become not only a public health issue, but a social issue,” Ko said. “It has shown some important ramifications of stigma.”
Ko began the panel by describing Zika virus, which he said has greatly impacted Brazil and will likely impact North and South America as a whole. Zika is especially transmitted by mosquitoes that have adapted to urban environments. Though its symptoms, which include an itchy rash, fever and muscle aches, are normally benign and last only three to four days, Zika has also been found to cause brain defects in the fetuses of infected pregnant women.
Along with the Zika virus, obstetricians noticed increased abnormalities in routine ultrasounds of pregnant women conducted in the second trimester. Ko said that they eventually linked the outbreak of Zika with microcephaly, a birth defect that is marked by a smaller-than-average skull size, epilepsy, convulsions and leads to “essentially nonexistent” brain tissue.
In response to this crisis, governments in countries such as Brazil, El Salvador and Colombia have been telling women to delay pregnancy for as long as two years, which Friedman said is “not only impractical, but unrealistic.” Because many of these countries fail to provide adequate contraceptive resources and are plagued by sexual violence, she said, this was a violation of women’s reproductive rights.
“Telling women and men not to have sexual intercourse is not a legitimate option,” Rodríguez Alarcón agreed. “How do we create a balance of a public heath approach and a human rights approach?”
Friedman suggested multiple changes in legislation that must occur in these countries in order to preserve human rights. In these regions, over half of all pregnancies are unintended – but abortion laws are among the most restrictive in the world, Friedman said. She emphasized that the lack of access to contraception, legal abortion or prenatal care can contribute to rising numbers of illegal and unsafe abortions.
However, Friedman said she has hope that the Zika virus will present an opportunity for governments to improve sexual education, including family planning, and provide psychosocial and medical support to those who have been affected by the Zikavirus. In the long run, this current emergency could attempt to discourage “gender inequality and social injustice,” she said.
“We shouldn’t let short-term initiatives overshadow the long-term goals, such as empowering women with reproductive rights,” Ko said.
Attendees came from various schools of Yale, including the School of Public Health, the School of Nursing and Yale College. Once the discussion was over and the panel opened up to questions, several audience members asked how countries could optimize cost effectiveness in addressing these issues. Ko said the issue was not about cost effectiveness, but rather “providing the care and support that these countries deserve.”
Patrick Bringardner NUR ’16 said he was particularly impacted by the social aspect of the disease. He wondered how the government would react to and give economic support to a child born with microcephaly. He mentioned that telling a woman that her child has the defect without providing a “next step” might lead to more high-risk abortions.
Another attendee, Sarah Ornellas ’19, said she went to the discussion because as a woman and a Brazilian, she felt connected to the issue. She noted that it was not only a major public health issue, but also a sociocultural one.
“As long as women don’t have access to emergency contraception and other forms of birth control, they won’t be able to enjoy full reproductive rights,” Rodríguez Alarcón said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been 153 travel-associated Zika virus cases reported in the U.S.