The hypothetical unborn are having a red-letter 2016 so far. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cooks up laughably strict recommendations for women’s alcohol abstention during their childbearing years, nations throughout Latin America and the Caribbean are advising their female residents to avoid getting pregnant for the next year or two. That’s not because the fast-spreading Zika epidemic bears any particular threat to pregnant women—the virus is basically harmless, and 80 percent of those infected experience no symptoms. But Zika has been linked to microcephaly, a rare birth defect that causes stunted head and brain development that has shown up in thousands of babies born to Zika-infected mothers in recent months. Health officials are asking entire countries’ worth of women to prevent their hypothetical pregnancies in order to protect fetuses that have yet to materialize.
It’s a prohibitive order in nations such as El Salvador and Brazil, which are home to some of the world’s strictest, most punishing anti-abortion laws, and other Central and South American countries where contraception is extraordinarily difficult to access and afford. It also ignores one full half of the conception equation: sperm.
Women do not get pregnant on their own, in a female-only vacuum. Men have an equal role in conception and, in the midst of a looming public health nightmare like the Zika epidemic, preventing it. But health ministers aren’t asking all men to give up procreative sex for the foreseeable future—that would be insane! They’re asking women to take on the entire burden of warding off a potential hemisphere-wide microcephaly crisis.
Now that Zika has been sexually transmitted, too, it makes even less sense to focus all Zika-mitigation advocacy efforts on women. Governments can educate men about condoms and make male-barrier contraceptive methods more accessible. They can ramp up anti–sexual assault efforts, since hundreds of women will get pregnant through rapes they should not be expected to prevent. In Zika-afflicted nations, as in the U.S., men make up most of the right-wing powers that preoccupy themselves with blocking women’s access to abortion. Want to know a great way to prevent women from getting pregnant and wanting abortions because their fetuses might have microcephaly? Don’t tell women to stop getting pregnant—tell men to stop having sex with them.
“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,” Paula Young Lee writes of Zika-related health advisories in Dame. This attitude has a long legacy in public health policy. Gardasil, the human papillomavirus vaccine lauded for preventing most types of cervical cancer, was originally only tested on girls, which meant that its 2006 Food and Drug Administration approval was only for girls. The FDA didn’t approve the drug for boys until 2009, and until 2011, it didn’t make the list of recommended vaccines for boys, making it the only vaccine ever recommended for just one sex. This despite the fact that men get HPV, too; an estimated 70 percent of all head and neck cancers are caused by the virus, and genital warts know no gender. Preventing transmission through herd immunity is arguably the most important purpose of vaccination, but in the case of HPV, one half of the herd avoided the trouble and cost of that prevention.
The Zika anti-pregnancy recommendations also stem from a history of paternalism around fetuses when it comes to federal government agencies like the CDC, which recommended that all heterosexually active, fertile women who aren’t on birth control abstain from alcohol on the off chance that they get pregnant. The private sector, too, has occasionally branded all women with periods as potential babymakers. A 1991 Supreme Court case, United Auto Workers v. Johnson Controls, Inc., addressed a battery manufacturer’s policy that banned all fertile women—but not fertile men—from jobs that would expose them to a certain level of lead, which could harm fetuses. Women of childbearing age were also barred from jobs that would advance to roles with such lead exposure. Johnson Controls’ “fetal-protection policy” was meant to relieve the company of any liability for birth defects in its employees’ potential future children. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the policy constituted gender discrimination that violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Had the decision gone the other way, millions of women who currently work jobs that expose them to toxic materials could have been fired—all to safeguard a generation of babies that doesn’t yet, and may never, exist.
The countries that are telling women to avoid pregnancy haven’t codified their recommendations into law, but the spirit of the directive is the same. When an institution tells a woman when, whether, and how to get pregnant, ignoring any harm-reduction measures or risks she might be willing to take, it’s prioritizing the health of an imaginary fetus over the quality and autonomy of an actual woman’s life. Such an order is patronizing in any case, especially without safe, legal, accessible abortion services. But if public health concerns must prevail, men shouldn’t get a free pass.