Bioethics Blogs

Cultural Expectation and Prenatal Risk – A Matter of Justice

Leslie Ann McNolty
I recently co-authored a peer commentary in the American Journal of Bioethics on gender and the unequal management of pre-natal risks. The argument we made in AJOB has particular relevance to two issues recently in the news.

Zika and the CDC

From public health campaigns to care at the bedside, our culture views women as primarily responsible for physical reproduction. If and when men are assigned any kind or degree of reproductive-related responsibility, it is usually secondary and indirect. Examples of the asymmetrical assignment of responsibility between women and men abound, including two recent stories making headlines. 
In response to the epidemic of the Zika virus which may cause microcephaly in some infants whose mothers are infected with the virus while pregnant, governments in several South American nations formally recommended that women avoid getting pregnant for up to two years. As a public health response, this approach is misguided and frankly disturbing for a number of reasons. First, it attributes all responsibility for managing reproduction to women despite the equal biological role men and women play in procreation. Second, it is starkly at odds with other culturally reinforced norms. Motherhood is the central route to social status for the poor women who have the highest risk of contracting Zika. Third, the countries making this recommendation have overwhelmingly Catholic populations. Catholic doctrine proscribes the use of birth control or abortion. (Though Pope Francis recently made remarks that suggest the presence of Zika may make birth control permissible.) I imagine the response of women in these countries is, “Thanks for the advice.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.