The three-letter word missing from the Zika warnings – men


Courtesy Guardian

It’s hard to believe that just a few weeks ago, hardly anyone had heard of the Zika virus or the condition to which it is now suspected to be linked.

Microcephaly is a rare congenital condition where infants are born with undersized craniums. Though Zika’s exact relationship, if any, to this lifelong condition has yet to be determined, the World Health Organisation has declared Zika a global emergency, and government officials in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and El Salvador are “advising women to avoid getting pregnant, for fear that the fast-spreading Zika virus may cause severe brain defects in unborn children”. Officials outside affected countries in Latin America and the Caribbean are advising women to “avoid travelling” to those areas.

Notice anything odd about these warnings? No? Let’s continue.

As many commentators have pointed out, it seems mind-boggling that countries without contraception, and where abortion is illegal even in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother, are now recommending that women stop having babies for at least two years, or until medical researchers have a better understanding of Zika’s impact on developing foetuses. Human rights advocates and health workers have rightly pushed back against those recommendations. “Even if women attempt to follow the recommendations through abstinence,” writes Charlotte Alter for Time, “sexual violence is so pervasive throughout the region that many women may get pregnant against their will”.

Here is the problem: all of these warnings to women about getting pregnant have managed to avoid a particular word: “men”. Rather than telling women to “avoid pregnancy” in the manner of avoiding a pothole, why are none of these assorted agencies telling men to stop having procreative sex until we know more about Zika?

Why does the very suggestion of any government recommending men to practice abstinence for two years seem like a joke? The cultural reflex to hold women accountable for male lust and subsequent reproduction is so ingrained that we don’t even notice the asymmetry. Indeed, it strikes the domesticated mind as verging on unreasonable to hold men morally responsible when pregnancy is unwelcome, unwanted or, in the case of the Zika virus, a potential public health disaster. Yet women do not “get pregnant”. Men impregnate them. Most times, and in most places, the old fashioned sex way, the kind that made Barbarella’s hair stand on end.

Biologically speaking, there’s really no getting around the fact that female eggs require male sperm in order for fertilisation to occur. And yet, the phrase, “she’s gotten herself pregnant” is commonplace. Note that it implies the woman became pregnant all by herself. Why is pregnancy repeatedly framed as an act of bodily will on the sole part of the woman?

Scientists may know the biology of reproduction, but the moral framework around sex and pregnancy isn’t much different than it was six centuries ago, when French physician Ambroise Paré wrote of child born with a “frog head” because its mother had held a frog in her hand. The reflex to blame women’s behaviour for birth defects partakes of this superstitious world governed by “sympathies,” where the mere sight of a startling creature could prompt a pregnant woman to give birth to a monster. We laugh at our peril, for the primary vector of Zika, a mosquito, has become the real-life embodiment of the alien bugs of the film Starship Troopers and must be obliteratedfrom the face of this planet lest they devastate the population.

That’s a familiar adversarial stance with clean lines between us and them. But it won’t work for a variety of reasons, including the fact that the monster is now human. With remarkable swiftness, the vectors have shifted, and the US has just documented its first case of Zika that was transmitted via sex with an infected person.

So now what? Pope Francis has recently faulted the church for becoming obsessed with homosexuality, abortion and contraception to the detriment of its larger mission. Authorities in Zika-affected countries are nonetheless sticking by their anti-contraception, anti-abortion stance, even though it has already meant nearly 4,000 infants born with an incapacitating birth defect in Brazil alone, concentrated in remote communities with scant resources to care for profoundly disabled children.

Beyond the practical issues that must immediately be faced, the long-term challenge is to address the shifting realities of sex and reproduction in a global 21st century, with the moral agenda shifted away from controlling women to alleviating human suffering.