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Zika on Board: Disease, Sex, & Olympics in Brazil

BBrazil should be worried. In Latin America, it currently has one of the highest climbing rates of Zika cases, a disease believed to cause microcephaly in the womb and resulting in babies being born with underdeveloped brains and heads. Transmitted by mosquitoes and sexual intercourse, Brazil is facing an upward battle, all while maintaining a brave face as it forges ahead with the 2016 Olympics games in August. The country is taking action to combat the outbreak, but with the added pressure of the games, there will be a much more critical spotlight directed at the country than originally anticipated.

While Zika does seem to be in a work-in-progress stage as far as understanding its mutation and impact, the disease has already reached the continent with arguably the loudest voices in the global community – white North American women and families. While Ebola spread faster and was more lethal, it did not have that white-exposure factor going for it that Zika does. But that’s only one of Brazil’s PR problems when it comes to Zika; the most glaring has to do with a very specific cardio-vascular activity, one that is not part of the Olympic game line-up, but it’s historical role and significance within the realm of sports is so entrenched, it would be egregious to ignore it: sex.

As the Brazilian government scrambles to contain the virus, their current best course of action happens to be simple, in every sense of the word. In a country with the highest rate of Catholicism, one of the highest rates of violence against women, the most severe laws against abortion, and the most restricted access to sexual-health education and contraception, the government has advised women to simply not get pregnant for the next 2 years, at least.

The statistics are all there to review – the details available in the women’s stories, each one facing a choice more gruesome than the next. Back-alley abortions, pills to induce miscarriage, and neighbours, medical practitioners, and even family members turning in women to police for being pregnant and seeking help to terminate. Despite laws banning abortion in Brazil except in cases of rape, incest, or anencephaly, where there is a market need there will be a service provider, even if it means risk of death, imprisonment, or excommunication from the Church.  

The loss of life due to maternal deaths is an epidemic all on its own, one amplified by medical crises like Zika. But there is one thing this tragedy has provided, and that’s an opportunity to bring reproductive rights and women’s health to the forefront of political, religious and even athletic spheres. Maybe ‘provided’ is not the right word; in this context the virus may best be described as a force colliding progression with ancient tradition, all in the name of hosting a successful Olympic games – a celebration that is cloaked in spirituality, conquests, and in winner and losers.

Not even Pope Francis, the world’s first South American pontiff, can deny the crash course society seems to be travelling on. In cases of Zika, the Pope has given his blessing for birth control, calling it a “lesser evil” in this particular circumstance. When the realities of modernity are present, even the most important Catholic on Earth can admit when God just isn’t enough.

If the success of the games weighs on the handling of Zika, let’s hitch the health of women, and ultimately the health of fetuses, onto this chariot. If women are being advised to not get pregnant, there should be equal advisement to men on how to avoid impregnating women, starting with a cease and desist of rape and other forms of sexual violence. The burden is always unduly put upon women to avoid the natural outcome of sexual intercourse, even in cases when consent is not given in the first place.

But as I said before, sex and sports are intertwined, so much so that myths still persist today about whether to engage or not engage in pre-game coitus. The physical effects of victory were on clear display during the London 2012 games when US athlete Henrik Rummel accepted his medal in rowing – and that was only for the bronze! During those same games, sprinter and gold-medal winner Usain Bolt was reported to have planned to impregnate his then-girlfriend, Meg Edwards, at the Olympics. The question remains now not if women will get pregnant before, during, or after the games, but in what numbers and in what health will these pregnancies be?

Abortion access and reproductive rights in the US are starting to look alarmingly similar to Brazil and other Latin countries. The implementation of restrictive legislature is typically devised with the sole intention of making abortions inaccessible, while masquerading as a precaution to make women’s health care safer. We cannot and should not diminish the role of religion within the lives of Americans, but a reckoning is coming where abstract thoughts must make way for practical solutions. To exist between those worlds – of being a woman seeking adequate medical care, including abortion, and being a woman of religious conviction – is a precarious balancing act requiring the utmost sensitivity, expertise and aftercare. It is an ambitious reconciliation, almost requiring a god-like miracle, and so Brazil should be worried, but so should all of us.


Claire Rush
Claire Rush holds a BA in Communication Studies from Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, ON. She has also studied journalism at Humber College in Toronto and has a strong passion for (not-dead-yet) print media; her favourite publications include The Economist, Vanity Fair and Vice. Claire is an active member and volunteer with Women in Toronto Politics (WiTOpoli), which serves to empower and educate women within local politics. Outside of Freedom Observatory, Claire has been published in Humber College's newspaper, Et Cetera, and she's been accepted as a regular contributor to the WiTOpoli blog. Claire's main areas of interest are women's issues, particularly reproductive rights and healthcare access, LGBTQ awareness, U.S. politics, human rights, and international relations.

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