Zika, microcephaly, women’s rights, and disability rights

by Stephanie Ortoleva, Founder and President, WomenEnabled InternationalThe news is filled with discussions regarding the Zika virus, microcephaly, access to abortion, and women’s sexual and reproductive rights – sometimes from a medical perspective, sometimes from a community health perspective, sometimes from a women’s rights perspective, and occasionally from a disability rights perspective… Women Enabled International (WEI) sets out a more nuanced perspective to frame a discussion that reflects the inherent rights and dignity of all affected by the Zika virus, based on an intersectional disability and women’s human rights perspective.The impact of microcephaly on a child’s physical and mental development can vary considerably. In more severe cases, microcephaly can lead to significant learning and memory difficulties, as well as physical complications, such as seizures. However, some children with microcephaly have average intelligence and no physical symptoms beyond a smaller than average head.Recent studies suggest that, in addition to microcephaly, the Zika virus may also increase risk of miscarriage and stillbirth, as well as other possible pregnancy-related complications such as poorly developed placentas, low or no amniotic fluid, and severe growth restriction.Women must not be expected to have the sole responsibility for caring for children born with microcephaly; states must ensure that families of children with microcephaly have the support, training, and services necessary for raising a child with a disability. Services and facilities in communities affected by the Zika virus must also be responsive to the needs of pregnant women exposed to Zika and their families. It is essential that communities respond and adapt to meet a growing number of families who may require assistance and support services based in their communities to minimize the risk of isolation, segregation, and stigma for women who give birth to children with microcephaly.Women affected by Zika should not be pressured or coerced to abort, nor should they be restricted from obtaining an abortion. The dignity and humanity of children with disabilities, including children with microcephaly, must be respected, and they must get the care they need. Reports indicate that babies with microcephaly are at risk of abandonment by their parents, especially after the first year or two of life; this suggests that rates of abandoned children may rise rapidly over the next few years. It is essential that States allocate sufficient resources to training and support programs to empower families of children with microcephaly to care for their children in their home to minimize the risk of abandonment. States must also allocate sufficient resources and support to public and private institutions to ensure appropriate care to a growing number of children who may require State assistance.FULL STATEMENT: WEI’s Talking Points