The Unknown Nature of Zika
Many of us had never heard of the Zika Virus until recently, when it first took the media by storm. The Zika Virus, first discovered in Uganda Forest of Zika in 1947, is a mosquito-transmitted pathogen similar in nature to yellow fever and the West Nile Virus. This May, it made its first appearance in the Western Hemisphere, with an outbreak in Brazil. Now, the virus is running rampant, and has spread to numerous other countries, even making as far as the U.S. in Texas.
For a normal, healthy adult, Zika is no big deal – fever, a rash, red eyes, maybe some muscle pain or a headache. It only lasts a couple days to a week, and symptoms are rarely bad enough to warrant a hospital visit. For an unborn fetus, however, the effects can be life-altering. About the time the illness levels started to spike in Brazil, health officials noticed an alarming rise in the number of infants born with microcephaly. Microcephaly is a condition in which the child is born with an abnormally small head. Sometimes that’s all that happens. Other times though, the miniaturized cranium is accompanied by neurological issues – delayed motor and speech functions, mental retardation, facial distortions and seizures, physical impairment and even death.
Zika, and its public health implications, hold a large ethical impact. Brazil has fairly stringent laws regarding abortion, and worries about birth defects have ignited a fierce debate on the subject. Abortion rights activists are using the outbreak as an opportunity to counter conservative lawmakers, who have been pushing to make the laws even more restrictive. Legal scholars are preparing to argue before Brazil’s highest court on the topic.
The question of “are abortions ever morally permissible” aside, this does present an interesting addition. Assuming for the sake of argument that abortions could be moral under some circumstances, should a woman terminate a pregnancy just because there is the chance that the child could be born with a birth defect like microcephaly? One could argue that this sounds suspiciously like eugenics, which makes people a little uncomfortable. Does someone really have the right to determine if another person’s life is worth living, just because they might have a disability or are somehow disadvantaged? That could be a slippery slope; does having a physical imperfection, below average IQ, a non-conforming gender identity, or any other thing regarded by mainstream society as less than ideal, qualify them as having a life filled with problems and thus not worth living?
However, with the Zika Virus, one does have to take into account the severity of the disorders. If the child is born with the full laundry list of problems associated with microcephaly, there is a high potential that they would have to be institutionalized from an early age, and may never develop awareness of their surroundings or even “live” life as we conceive of it. Many infected infants will die in utero or be stillborn, as well. Either way, this discussion may be going on for a while, as the Zika Virus is expected to spread to every country in the Americas, and the World Health Organization reports that a vaccine may still be years away.