Bioethics Blogs

Pregnancy, stigma, and moral responsibility in the Zika epidemic

by Kelly McBride Folkers, BS

Pregnancy comes with great moral responsibility from mother to future child. A healthy pregnancy requires that pregnant women abstain from certain behaviors, like eating unpasteurized foods and drinking excessive amounts of alcohol. These decisions affect the wellbeing of the future child. But in addition to bearing the responsibility for the healthy development of the woman’s individual child, pregnant women face social stigmatization during pregnancy. The world takes notice of pregnant women, and this attention can be as innocuous as offering a seat to a visibly pregnant woman on the subway. But it all too often results in social isolation, decreased physical activity, and when pregnant women report a lack of social support, higher incidence of depression and anxiety symptoms.

The scientific and public health communities are learning that the Zika virus is capable of more damage to the developing fetus than initially thought possible. I am researching the ethical implications of Zika’s impact on reproductive health decisions for my master’s thesis and co-wrote a public health guide on staying healthy while traveling to areas with active Zika transmission. As a result of my work, I am left with a fear that pregnant women bear not only a responsibility to their own health and that of their future child, but a social one that is wrongfully imposed upon them by public health officials to make the rest of us feel comfortable.

The social norms around pregnancy are unlikely to change, yet I empathize with the added stressors to pregnant women in Florida as Zika continues to spread in the United States.

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.