Zika virus raises questions about abstinence and abortion

Zika Virus
by Laura Finch
Posted 6/08/16, 08:00 am

Most news reports leave out one crucial fact about Zika: it can be spread through sexual contact.

As of June 1, officials reported eleven people in the United States had contracted Zika through sex. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Thomas Frieden admitted on C-SPAN last month that officials have been surprised to see so many sexually transmitted cases.

Researchers, policymakers, and pro-life advocates are left wondering what the best solution is for protecting mothers and babies from the virus. The Zika virus emerged in West Africa decades ago, and it spreads mainly through mosquitoes. World Health Organization officials in January predicted the current outbreak might affect as many as 4 million people. If contracted by a pregnant woman, the disease can cause microcephaly (an unusually small head and brain) to her unborn baby.

Dr. Donna Harrison, executive director of the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists, said Zika doesn’t quite fit the description of a sexually transmitted disease, a designation saved for diseases so delicate they can only survive in certain conditions. Zika can be passed through semen, just like common viral infections such as the flu and the common cold.

French researchers wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine it’s still unknown whether Zika can be transmitted through bodily fluids other than semen, possibly even saliva. Condoms can’t be relied on to prevent the spread of the disease, Harrison said, because they are designed to prevent pregnancy, not STDs.

While research continues, preventing human-to-human transmission may have less to do with funding than with messaging. Valerie Huber, president of Ascend (formerly the National Abstinence Education Association), said her organization doesn’t claim to be against contraception, but current CDC messaging fails to draw a line between condoms and abstinence.

Huber pointed to plans surrounding the upcoming Olympic games in Brazil, known as ground zero of the Zika outbreak. Some Olympians are already expressing concerns about whether to go. It’s also well known that in Olympic Village, many athletes—some just teenagers—have casual sex. Although condoms will be made available there, Huber said, no one seems to be talking about abstinence as an option for avoiding Zika.

But they are talking about contraception to avoid the disease’s effects on unborn children. Even Pope Francis, on a long flight back to the Vatican from Central America in February, implied contraception might be an acceptable way to prevent the spread of Zika to unborn children. In that interview, he told reporters, “avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil.”

Abortion supporters are using Zika to support their arguments. The World Health Organization and the United Nations blame pro-life laws in Latin America such as Brazil’s prohibition on abortion for blocking family planning services and contributing to Zika’s fast spread in developing countries.

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a congressional leader on Zika funding, called the UN outrageous for blaming the virus on pro-life laws: “It’s not like pro-life legislation caused the Zika virus to mutate or had anything to do with the spread of the disease.”

In the midst of the controversy, an interesting public-private partnership has gone largely unnoticed: Bayer is giving 50,000 intrauterine devices (IUDs) and 40,000 oral contraceptive units to the CDC Foundation for distribution in Puerto Rico.

On one hand, it might appear an acceptable solution to a sticky dilemma: funding a one-time effort to prevent pregnancy while Zika is still a threat without using taxpayer dollars.

On the other hand, the CDC Foundation has not made clear what kinds of IUDs and oral contraception were donated. (Certain types of those medications have been deemed abortifacients.)

So far, nobody in the U.S. seems to be seriously pushing abortion as a solution to Zika. Just one discreet line in a statement by the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists hints at the possibility: “Because there is no treatment for Zika virus at this time, women should be counseled about all options available to them.”

Harrison said the bottom line is there appears to be a very narrow pool of women at risk: pregnant women who have never had the infection and are in their first trimester of pregnancy.

Even among the pool of women who contract Zika in this crucial three-month period, only one in 100 will give birth to a baby with microcephaly, she said, which is no excuse for counseling a woman into an abortion, but maybe more than enough reason to postpone a Caribbean honeymoon.

Laura Finch

Laura is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute's mid-career course.

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