We’ve all heard it. The high-pitched whine signaling that a mosquito is looking for a meal. For most of us, it’s just an annoyance. In warmer climes, it’s quite a different matter.
Imagine the terror of a woman infected with the mosquito-borne Zika virus who discovers she is pregnant. If ever there was a time to smash any and all barriers to contraception and safe abortion, that moment is now.
Yet, millions of women in Latin America and the Caribbean still have an unmet need for family planning. And in several countries where Zika is active (the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Suriname), abortion is always a crime, often punishable by life imprisonment.
Even in countries where abortion is legal in cases of rape, incest, or threats to the life or health of the woman, U.S. aid has been blocked due to a gross misreading of a nearly 50-year-old law, the Helms Amendment.
President Obama could fix Helms with the stroke of a pen. Yet, even though we’ve delivered 700,000 citizen petitions to the White House, he has inexplicably refused to do so.
The good news is that we have secured firm commitments from both Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders to fix Helms after taking the presidential oath of office. None of the GOP candidates has seen fit to make a similar commitment.
Many of us take family planning for granted in our personal lives. It’s akin to dental hygiene or proper footwear. Yet it remains a revolutionary idea in so many places.
And where a single hungry and Zika-infected Aedes mosquito can result in microcephaly and other horrific outcomes, women need to be able to make their own informed decisions about whether to continue their pregnancies after becoming infected.
It all seems so obvious and reasonable, doesn’t it? Yet there are powerful forces working day and night to roll back progress. A leading Brazilian Catholic bishop made it clear that facts don’t matter, nor do women’s lives: “Contraceptives are not a solution. There is not a single change in the church’s position.”
Here at home and abroad, zealots are hellbent on blocking access to contraception, so women have no choice but to become pregnant. They want to strip women of their right to privacy regarding decisions about the continuation or termination of their own pregnancies. This is not acceptable. So, we’ll keep fighting to rein in and repeal the Helms Amendment for as long as it takes.
As population continues to soar, pandemics could devastate hundreds of millions of people. A leading infectious disease expert, Dr. Amy Vittor, explains that, “People living in crowded circumstances, a lack of piped water, and poor sanitation, have given rise to the perfect set of conditions for the transmission of mosquito-borne viruses like Zika.” More than 100 million people live in slums throughout Latin America. Brazil has a slum population of 50 million. Rio de Janeiro alone has more than 1,000 favelas. Pathogens don’t respect borders. Ending population growth would make for a safer world.
As health experts battle the Zika virus, the 1966 words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. ring true: “Unlike plagues of the dark ages or contemporary diseases we do not yet understand, the modern plague of overpopulation is soluble by means we have discovered and with resources we possess.” The entire world will benefit if we heed King’s call.