Zika, Ableism, and Reproductive Healthcare

Celeste Orr critiques the ableism underpinning arguments for women’s access to contraception and abortion in response to the Zika virus.

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Last week the World Health Organization issued a statement on the Zika virus that commented on the observed increase in neurological disorders and neonatal disabilities. Infection with the Zika virus during pregnancy can lead to Zika infection in the developing fetus. In turn, this infection in the fetus can result in miscarriage, which can be traumatizing for women and parents. Zika infection during pregnancy also appears to be associated with a number of fetal disabilities including microcephaly. Children born with microcephaly may have seizures, problems with balance, and developmental disabilities. In addition to these disabilities, children with microcephaly have a reduced life expectancy. These children can and do thrive, however, if they have access to resources, such as speech therapy, physical therapy, and medication.

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Some have responded to the spread of Zika by advocating for women’s access to contraception and abortion, thereby making Zika a reproductive rights issue. These advocates insist that women’s access to the reproductive healthcare they need and want is imperative for women’s safety and gender equity. As well, some legislators are rethinking strict anti-abortion laws, restricted access to abortion and contraception, and anti-choice, pro-natal statutes and stances. And Pope Francis, departing from Catholic teaching, recently condoned contraception for some women exposed to the virus. Nevertheless, Pope Francis maintains that abortion is an “absolute evil.”

Notably, the argument for women’s access to reproductive healthcare in the context of Zika is that women should have temporary access to contraception and abortion to avoid the birth of the babies with disabilities. These babies, according to the dominant ableist ethos, are “devalued”, “deformed,” “wrong,” “abnormal,” and we ought to abort them “for their own good.” In this way, the push for women’s reproductive rights to combat microcephaly is underpinned by ableism and eugenic arguments. As such, Zika is not simply a reproductive rights issue, it is also a disability issue.

The underlying oppressive and ableist beliefs are not justified in relation to Zika or any other conversation around women’s reproductive rights. These beliefs promote the idea that people with disabilities are inherently unworthy of living and have pitiable existences. This reinforces the false notion that there is an objective and measurable difference between normal and abnormal, enabled and disabled bodily morphologies and ways of being. Appealing to ableist sentiments to justify the use of, and access to, reproductive healthcare is frankly eugenic. Such sentiments undermine and shame the voices of people with disabilities and the disability rights movement and justify systemic ableism.

In addition, these arguments do not support long-term change regarding women’s reproductive rights. For example, I suspect that Pope Francis, and many others, will return to anti-choice stances if and when Zika is no longer a reproductive health concern. When this time comes, there will still be approximately 20 million women around the world who undergo unsafe abortions every year because there is no or limited access to contraception and abortion. Five million of these women will deal with long term complications and 70,000 of these women will die from unsafe abortions.

The reproductive rights arguments around Zika are not the first to hinge on ableism. Ableist ideologies often saturate “feminist” pro-choice stances. As Rebecca Stapleford claims “the ideological structure that the pro-choice movement relies upon is inherently ableist.” However, this need not be the case.

To combat the ableism in the pro-choice movement and the conversations around Zika, it is imperative that pro-choice claims not center on ableist ideologies. Instead, women’s choice, autonomy, health, and mortality should be central. For example, when conversations about Zika and women’s access to contraception and abortion take place, we should not exploit ableist beliefs to endorse women’s rights. That is, women’s rights to reproductive healthcare should not come at the expense of people with disabilities or the disability rights movement.

We should support pro-choice stances without ableist rhetoric. It is possible to demonstrate that women deserve access to reproductive healthcare without reproducing and endorsing ableism. To quote Elsa S. Henry, “The rhetoric that abortion is for getting rid of disabled lives, has to STOP.”

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Celeste Orr is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Ottawa in the Institute of Feminist and Gender Studies.