Bioethics News

Zika Highlights Need for Research on Pregnant Women

By Anne Drapkin Lyerly, Carleigh Krubiner, Ruth Faden


This op-ed was originally published by the Baltimore Sun.


The rapid spread of the Zika virus — and its now clear association with microcephaly in babies exposed prenatally — has put extraordinary pressure on the research community to develop a vaccine as rapidly as possible. But accelerating the development of this vaccine is not only scientifically and logistically complicated, it is ethically complicated.


Pregnant women are at the crux of Zika’s most devastating consequences. Their needs must be uppermost in Zika prevention plans. While this will not be easy, the knee-jerk response that research with pregnant women is too complex to contemplate is not acceptable.


Current recommendations for women to delay or avoid pregnancy are unfair and unrealistic. In many areas hit hardest by Zika, women have limited access to contraception; there are, moreover, high rates of unplanned pregnancy worldwide. Preventing pregnancy may be the right course for some women, and preventing Zika in women before they get pregnant is critical. But these responses cannot be the whole answer. If we are serious about addressing the devastating impacts of Zika on normal brain development (Zika congenital syndrome), we must consider all approaches to preventing infection during pregnancy. This will require, at the very least, conscientious consideration of the role of pregnant women in the vaccine development agenda.


No doubt research with pregnant women is complicated. But ethical research with pregnant women is not impossible. Some might propose avoiding these complexities by testing vaccines in non-pregnant individuals, with a promise to collect safety data among pregnant women later.

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.