Berkley Forum

The Zika Virus and the Eugenic Impulse

Responding to Religion and Global Health: Addressing the Zika Pandemic in Latin America

The Western push for more abortion in Central and South America in response to Zika comes from a very dark place in our history.

A day after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Zika virus a global emergency, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, which actively promotes the view that "access to abortion is a matter of human rights," was putting pressure on countries in Central and South America to change laws that protect prenatal children from violence.

Other abortion rights activists seized on this new moment. The blog ThinkProgress described it as "The Zika Virus' Unlikely Silver Lining." 
Slate's feminist XXFactor blog sounded hopeful that Zika would be Latin America's "rubella moment"—recalling that, in the 1950s, rubella's association with birth defects began to make otherwise illegal abortion palatable in America. Amnesty International talked of the "devastating consequences" of anti-abortion laws. Planned Parenthood's international arm exploited the news to develop a special Zika virus fundraising campaign.

This was a remarkable response, not least because the link between Zika and microcephaly has not yet been established. The WHO's website cautioned that "no scientific evidence to date confirms a link between Zika virus and microcephaly." Colombian officials reported 3,177 pregnant women infected with Zika with no evidence that the virus has caused even a single case of microcephaly. Two physicians' organizations, in Argentina and Brazil, suggest that a pesticide could be the cause instead, noting that Zika has a long history in Latin America without an association with birth defects.

Even if there is a connection, abortion is a crude response to the possibility of microcephaly. The prenatal test for the disease—ultrasound
may not find evidence of it until the third trimester. That is well after the baby can feel pain and live outside the womb, and past the point when a majority of those who identify as pro-choice are willing to accept abortions. All prenatal tests, but especially those early in pregnancy, have a significant failure rate. Furthermore, the prognosis for a child with microcephaly can vary widely—as a Brazilian journalist who has microcephaly pointedly reminded the world in a report from the BBC.

It isn't difficult to understand why Latin Americans might be resentful of groups such as the UN, Amnesty International, and the International Planned Parenthood Federation and their attempts to impose foreign moral and legal principles onto those who think differently. Though a blind spot for many progressives, this is yet another example of Western colonialism.

The eugenic impulse is so deeply embedded in American culture that we often don't recognize it. As early as 1909, Indiana passed eugenic compulsory sterilization, a law infamously upheld by the Supreme Court in an opinion that concluded by saying "three generations of imbeciles are enough."

Nor was this an unpopular position. A Fortune magazine poll in 1937 found that two in three Americans supported forced sterilization of "mental defectives." Margaret Sanger, founder of an organization in 1921 that would become Planned Parenthood, insisted that the imbalance between "the birthrate of the unfit and fit" was "the greatest present menace to civilization."

This sort of thinking is still expressed in the United States. According to Arthur Caplan, founding head of the bioethics program at New York University, "more than 85% of parents who learn through prenatal testing that a fetus has Down syndrome terminate the pregnancy." This, despite studies that find children with Down syndrome are actually happier than those who are "normal" and that families with such children are also disproportionately happy. These facts, however, are not always shared with patients when physicians describe the possibility of having a child with Down syndrome.

Medical ethicists have long worried about the language used by physicians when they speak to parents about genetic testing and abortion. Disability advocates argue that directive and ableist language has played a significant role in the 85 percent abortion rate. Many of us have heard tearful or even rage-filled accounts from parents who were bullied not only into having prenatal tests but also to abort if the tests came back positive. In response, disability rights groups have led the way in passing laws requiring the medical community to end these unethical practices and to give their patients the actual data.

The practice of discarding the vulnerable when they become inconvenient is precisely what Pope Francis has criticized about our contemporary "throwaway culture." Francis insists we give priority to the most vulnerable among us, not the most productive. Indeed, if someone is seen by others as a burden, this is the first sign that we should give them special attention and care.

The rush to advocate for abortion as a response to the Zika virus is grounded in ignorance and expedience. If these organizations were actually interested in helping people with Zika—rather than exploiting the outbreak for a broader agenda—they would have held their fire until we knew more. They also would have done more to wrestle with the views of the disability rights community.

Instead of arrogantly insisting that developing nations must change their laws to suit someone else's ideology, abortion proponents and the media would be better served by taking a critical look at the eugenic impulse in responding to Zika.

This piece has been adapted from one published originally in the Australia Broadcast Corporation’s Religion and Ethics blog.
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