God may have created the Zika virus, but the Religious Right has turned it into a devastating epidemic of brain damage.
Zika could have been an ordinary epidemic like the ever-changing influenza that emerges each winter and spreads across the Northern Hemisphere with sad but rare complications. But the Religious Right’s antagonism to birth control and abortion (and honest conversation about sex in general) has transformed the Zika epidemic into a nightmare that will devastate lives for an entire generation.
In the absence of pregnancy, Zika isn’t usually a big deal. Only one in five people who contract Zika experience symptoms, and those who do mostly feel like they’ve gotten the flu. This is not to say Zika never does lasting harm to adults, just that—like the flu—those cases appear to be rare.
The difference, as most people now know, is that getting Zika while pregnant is really, really bad. The virus attacks the fetal nervous system, eating brain structures that have already developed and blocking development of others. As affected babies grow older, they fall farther behind. Even babies that look normal may be damaged for life. Unlike the flu, when it comes to Zika, pregnancy prevention or timing is everything.
Three Ways to Rapidly Safeguard Families
Even if Zika spreads across its potential range of 41 states, a quick and targeted response could make lasting harm rare, at least within U.S. borders. The solution is simple and relatively cheap, but it’s stuff that the sex-obsessed, patriarchy-protecting Religious Right has been opposing for decades:
- Information. Launch a huge public education campaign so that all couples know how to prevent mistimed or unwanted pregnancy and can delay parenthood till the time is safe. Currently a third of pregnancies globally and almost half in the U.S. are accidents, with some of the highest rates where Zika-carrying mosquitos live.
- Contraception. Make state-of-the-art birth control available free of charge, including the very best IUDs and implants, which drop the accidental pregnancy rate below 1 in 500. (With the Pill that’s 1 in 11; with condoms 1 in 6; with the rhythm method its closer to 1 in 4.)
- Abortion. Ensure that couples who discover microcephaly and other fetal defects in utero can, if they prefer, abort a diseased pregnancy and start over. Millions of healthy children exist in this world only because their parents receive the mercy of a fresh start (like I did).
Each of these steps is easier and cheaper than trying to eradicate mosquitos or develop and distribute a vaccine–both of which are moving forward. With existing contraceptive knowledge and technologies, birth defects from Zika could drop to near zero. The problem is not a lack of means; it’s a lack of will brought on by religious teaching that generate resistance and controversy around anything that has to do with sex, gender roles, or reproduction.
You Reap What You Sow
No matter what, tragic birth defects from Zika would have hit some families as the virus spread out of Africa where it is endemic (and where most women appear to have immunity before they reach reproductive age). But without relentless promotion of ignorance and falsehood by priests and pastors—without anti-contraception campaigning by the Vatican in particular—birth defects from Zika would be a small fraction of what humanity now faces.
Religious conservatives claim to love women and babies, especially unborn babies; but this claim is pure self-deception by biblical standards. The writer of Matthew warns of men who claim to speak for God but actually don’t. He says, “By their fruit ye shall know them.”
What are the fruits of conservative Christian hostility toward judicious, planned, intentional parenthood? For generations, humanity has been battered by preventable harms from ill-timed and unwanted pregnancy: children bearing children in hopeless poverty, education foregone, abuse and neglect, family conflict triggered by stress, armed conflict triggered by population pressures and resource depletion; starvation, illness and death . . .
If the Church hadn’t thrown its wealth and weight against family planning programs in the 1960’s and every decade since, who knows how different life on Earth might look right now. Zika merely ups the ante.
And the conservative Christian solution to it all? More prayer and less sex.
If They Actually Loved Babies
Actions speak louder than pious words. If God’s self-proclaimed messengers actually loved women and children more than they love power and tradition, they would admit they have been wrong and would do what’s best for healthy families:
- Stop using the political clout of the Church to make birth control expensive and hard to get—especially for poor people and those at risk of Zika.
- Stop goading conservative politicians to waste millions trying to defend bogus anti-abortion laws, and work instead to make abortion less necessary.
- Stop teaching young people that they should “let go and let God” determine how many kids they have (whether infected or starving or not). Start teaching that the ability to plan our families is a precious gift.
- Stop pretending that vows of abstinence work for more than a few odd individuals. Start providing real information about healthy, respectful, responsible pleasure and intimacy.
- Stop forcing doctors and nurses to follow anti-contraception, anti-abortion religious directives bordering on malpractice; and instead ensure that hospitals and clinics controlled by religious institutions provide model family planning care.
The Zika wave will sweep over the Americas, and as immunity grows rates of infection will likely drop off. In that case, the suffering caused by Church hostility to sexuality education and family planning will drop back to more familiar levels. But right now Zika presents a rare opportunity for religious leaders to show that they are not, as they often appear, so busy defending dogma that they have become morally bankrupt.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.