While the world obsesses over the Zika virus—with concerned leaders of all political leanings debating every aspect of the outbreak, from funding to whether the Olympics in Rio should be called off—one person who has stayed uncharacteristically mum on the subject is Republican nominee and former (and debatably current) reality television star Donald J. Trump.
Sure, it’s possible he’s still figuring out his strategy for “winning” against the mosquitos that spread the virus. But the fact that Trump has avoided discussing Zika—one of the largest threats to public health in recent history—not only highlights yet another knowledge area in which he seems lacking but underscores his well-documented and systemic disregard for women.
Why? Because Zika is undeniably a women’s issue, and one that relies heavily on women maintaining their reproductive rights—rights that The Donald has attacked.
As everyone who has been following the news knows, if a pregnant woman is bitten by a Zika-affected mosquito, she risks giving birth to a baby born with microcephaly, a condition that causes a disproportionately small head and a lifetime of reckoning with neural and developmental disorders. Zika is also sexually transmitted—so a man who is bitten and infected can pass it on through semen. And right now, the jury is still out on whether a woman who is not pregnant might see long-term effects on her egg cells should she be bitten, too.
Yup, that’s right: We still don’t know if Zika might somehow alter a non-pregnant woman’s egg cells, infecting them in some way that could have a serious effect on any children she may one day choose to have.
The key word here, of course, is choose. Because, yes, we need funding for research and vaccines—critical steps in beginning to even understand this virus and how to respond to it. But we also need to ensure that all women have the ability to determine whether they want to carry a pregnancy if they become infected. Zika shines a light on the heart of the pro-choice movement, underscoring why it’s so important that a woman has the ability to decide for herself if makes sense for her to carry a pregnancy, no matter the reason.
When Zika comes to the U.S., which expert sources say will likely happen this summer, it will hit the Gulf Coast the hardest. This means that the women who face the greatest risk of exposure are the same women who face some of the steepest barriers to reproductive health services, from birth control to abortion care.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, in 2013, hundreds of thousands of women in Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana—and nearly 1.8 million women in Texas—sought out publicly supported contraceptive services and supplies. Meanwhile, during the same stretch, all four states have worked tirelessly to restrict women’s access to reproductive health facilities.
For women living in poverty in these regions, Zika could prove to be potentially catastrophic. Not only do women in these states face limited access to health information, but limited access to necessary care. There’s also the very real possibility that these regions will be left to deal with the economic and emotional reality of a community raising children who require a lifetime of support services. Given that the CDC is already struggling to secure funding to fight the epidemic, it’s tough to imagine an swift path to ensuring that Zika-born children get the governmental support they will inevitably need.
And so, when Trump stays silent on Zika, he isn’t merely staying silent on American women’s well-being. He’s doing something worse: signaling that women don’t matter.
In a Medium post dated March 18, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote that the “time to take action against Zika is now.” In April, Clinton sent a team of advisors to the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico to information-gather on the reality of the spread of the virus there. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, too, has joined with Democratic colleagues in the Senate to call for immediate action on President Obama’s request for $1.9 million in emergency funding in response to the virus.
But Donald Trump has said hardly anything on the matter.
Earlier this month, Trump, in yet another attack on Hillary Clinton and her gender, said: “All of the men, we’re petrified to speak to women anymore.”
Alas, I think Trump may have gotten the words in this sentence slightly out of order, as it seems what he is truly petrified of is taking action to support the lives of women who, to paraphrase CDC head Tom Frieden, might be irreparably changed overnight by a mosquito bite.
Jen Gerson Uffalussy is a regular contributor to Fusion. She also writes about reproductive and sexual health/policy for Glamour, and television for The Guardian. She lives in Atlanta.