Feminists are Demanding Action on Zika That Addresses the Intersections of Gender and Class

Lawmakers in Congress are still attempting to resolve a partisan impasse regarding unnecessary attempts to restrict reproductive rights within a proposed funding package to combat the Zika virus—but 90 feminist leaders are demanding action.

Sarah Mirk / Creative Commons
Sarah Mirk / Creative Commons

Prominent feminist activists and leaders from a variety of disciplines—including Gloria Steinem, Cecile Richards, Mary Kay Henry, Ellen Bravo, Elizabeth Shuler, Melanie Campbell, Teresa Younger and Donna Hall—have signed an open letter to Congressmembers and political candidates stressing the immediate need to pass legislation to respond to the Zika virus.

While allocating funding for recommended prevention and treatment resources—including family planning—has been at the forefront of  the legislative deliberations, those signing on to the letter also centered the disproportionate impact Zika is having on low-income folks and the way the dire health risks of the virus are even further magnified by a lack of economic security:

Zika poses a serious threat to those who are pregnant and those planning on becoming pregnant, and Zika infection has been established as a cause of microcephaly.

In Miami, especially, many of these expectant and prospective parents are employed in low-paid jobs in the tourist industry, cleaning hotel rooms, serving food in restaurants, or caring for the frail elderly as home health aides. They cannot simply leave their jobs and move to a safer environment for nine or more months;  most do not even have a single paid sick day to use to get tested for Zika without losing their pay and maybe even their jobs.

Funding cuts are limiting their access to prenatal care and testing, as well as contraception and abortion services. The Hyde Amendment and restrictive state laws compound this barrier for low-income women. And every newborn, whatever their health status, needs loving parents to nurture them, a challenge in the only developed nation on Earth that fails to guarantee paid family leave.

Pretending we don’t have a public health emergency while we allow it to get worse is not the answer.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), there’s a collective total of about 20,870 reported cases of Zika within the U.S. and its territories. Zika poses numerous health risks for prospective parents and unborn fetuses—including eye defects, hearing loss and impaired growth. Exposure to Zika during pregnancy can also make unborn fetuses susceptible to a birth defect known as microcephaly which causes reduced head sizes in newborn infants.

The CDC advises pregnant women living in or frequently traveling to heavily infected areas to get tested in both the first and second trimester, but a lack of job security could prevent them from even taking a day off to visit a doctor or covering the costs of an examination. The CDC’s recommendation to wait for six months before getting pregnant if an individual lives or has traveled to theses areas also underscores the urgent need to ensure that women’s healthcare and family planning resources are both readily accessible. (The Feminist Majority has asked its members to demand Congress pass Zika funding without cutting off access to women’s healthcare.)

Signatories are demanding Congress urgently instate legislation guaranteeing funding for Zika prevention measures, public health education, research efforts and women’s healthcare services—but these efforts are not enough. The ongoing battle for an adequate response to this public health crisis free from political attacks on women’s health underscore larger issues, as does the open letter’s focus on low-income women and the unique challenges they face.

A clean Zika funding bill desperately need to be passed—and, as the signatories of the open letter noted, so does a national paid sick days law, a national paid family leave policy and a national pregnancy accommodation law.

You can sign the open letter here.




Melissa Scholke is an Editorial Intern at Ms. and a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, where she studied English Literature and Communications Studies. When she’s not writing and discussing important feminist issues, she spends time reading and indulging her indie music obsession.