Zika Coverage and the Limits of Repronormativity

Emilie Egger // After nearly two years of distressing headlines, the Zika virus had receded from mainstream news coverage. That was until a newly pregnant Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, set off for a tour of the South Pacific, where the virus has spread in recent months. The optics of hand wringing over the health of a British royal and her pregnancy during a Commonwealth tour fell along predictable lines, evoking recognizable tropes of a metropole’s anxious incursions into local family health and planning. While Markle and her doctors decided the risks of a quick trip to a risk area weren’t high enough to cancel her plans, the ensuing commotion put into relief shortcomings of the public-health messaging around the crisis.

Across regions and headlines, one aspect of Zika coverage remains consistent: the burden on gestational parents, usually women, to manage their reproduction and care for their babies, especially those born with congenital Zika syndrome. Indeed, the public-health response to Zika has always put too much pressure on pregnant people. Forget advice not to travel to risk zones (obviously not an option for most residents who live in these areas) — from the earliest days of the outbreak, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommended that women simply not become pregnant or refrain from sexual intercourse if they already were as precautions against transmitting the virus.

In Brazil and Latin America, these suggestions never gained much traction. Many Zika regions include countries where regular medical birth control is difficult to obtain, abortion is almost always illegal, and where sexual assault within marriage is not a crime. Two years after the initial outbreak, the devastating effects of a rhetoric that calls for individual-behavior management in this region have become more clear as babies born with effects of the Zika virus age into toddlerhood.

Zika news coverage two years later centers on the unfolding ramifications of the virus on family structure, gender roles, and reproductive futures. Reports of fathers leaving their families in the wake of Zika abound, especially in Brazil, which has seen more than 4,000 children born with congenital Zika syndrome. Brazilian families must also cope with the first increase in the infant-mortality rate in 26 years. There and elsewhere, the virus is changing how people form and understand their families.  

Meanwhile, the response of medical professionals centers on the hope for a vaccine. Several research universities and organizations have begun conducting clinical trials. With its history of success in public vaccination campaigns, Brazil is seen as a “model” for a potential push to eradicate Zika. On another front, Zika testing kits are becoming more widely available and form the basis of a growing industry.

Accessible health care is undoubtedly a crucial issue and many young people born with microcephaly need health care and assistance. Yet, in Brazil and elsewhere, access has not been enough. Catherine Maternowska writes about social factors that preclude women from taking advantage of available birth control. Among other issues, she stresses ongoing power dynamics in clinical settings, and the “miserable political and economic conditions make it nearly impossible to sustain public health gains” (Maternowska 181). While access to birth control is just one factor in the Brazilian Zika saga, Maternowska’s analysis applies to all of the vulnerabilities of birth and family-health planning. The crisis takes on even more urgency when considering the histories of coercive family planning in Latin America and Brazil, many of which link women’s reproduction to environmental disaster. The stories of such campaigns in Puerto Rico, Colombia, Peru, and others offer warning.

Beyond more familiar legacies of colonialism such as issues of poverty and access to healthcare, it is an empire-laden understanding of repronormativity that joins the stories of the Sussexs in Fiji and newly single mothers in Brazil. Legal scholar Katherine M. Franke coined the term repronormativity nearly 20 years ago to refer to the naturalized assumption that women bear children and that their sexuality is an “inevitable site of danger” (Franke 181). Subsequent scholars have extended the argument beyond law to examine queer relationships (Edelman 2004) and expectations of the “normate” child (e.g. Kafer 2013). Zika and other congenital illnesses remind us of state and cultural priorities when it comes to procreation.    

While Zika has brought its own dramatic effects, it also highlights how few families meet the standards of repronormativity. As The Guardian reports, the babies of Zika have brought attention to the Brazil’s other disabled children, who “may get help for the first time.” Zika marks a window of possibility that the fear and concern will extend to other disabled children, who have not received sustained public attention.

Along with broader family planning context in Latin America, Brazil of course has its national context, which include its right-wing president-elect, economic recession, corruption scandal, as well as its own tradition of long-established racism, all of which are crucial to issues of family management. As Nancy Leys Stepan pointed out in her classic 1991 text The Hour of Eugenics, eugenics, while a legacy of colonialism, takes on its own lives and generate new logics in whatever context it exists. As Stepan writes, Brazil has its own history of managing families through restrictive marriage policies, exclusive immigration policies, and eugenics based in public health (Stepan 126, 158). Handling the effects of Zika will require rigorous analysis–inside homes, families, social groups, as well as the priorities of those providing care.

Works Cited:

Edelman, Lee. No Futurity: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham, NC, Duke University
Press, 2004.

Franke, Katherine  M. (2001). “Theorizing yes: An essay on feminism, law, and desire.” Columbia Law
Review, 101, 181–208.

Kafer, Alison. Feminist, Queer Crip. Bloomington, University of Indiana Press, 2013.

Maternowska, M. Catherine. Reproducing Inequities: Poverty and the Politics of Population in Haiti. New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 2006.

Stepan, Nancy Leys. The Hour of Eugenics: Race, Gender, and Nation in Latin America. Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press, 1991.

 

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