Blog, Social Justice

Pandemic Highlights the Fact That Our Society Still Consistently Denies Women’s Humanity

pregnant during the pandemic - pregnant person lying on a bed

Hello there. I’m Steph Auteri and I’m a freelance writer. I write about sex and stuff, here and elsewhere. For the past two years, however, I’ve been experiencing what I can only describe as writing paralysis.

At first, it was the pandemic. Pieces were killed, projects were postponed, and prospective clients disappeared as the media naturally shifted toward COVID content. I adapted as well as I could, while still staying firmly within my lane. Now, as the world continues to circle the metaphorical drain and COVID content continues to be relevant, stories about the challenges to Roe v. Wade have also reached a fever pitch. At this point, these two types of stories are all I see. And, my god, it’s exhausting to write about issues that never seem to get any better.

But what interests me today are the ways in which these two issues intertwine. Because in both cases, what we can see are the persistent ways in which society denies the humanity of women in favor of fetal personhood.

So, hell, I’m going to write about it.

My Body, My Choice… Right?

Knowing the Feminist Book Club community as I do, I feel it’s not necessary for me to go through the entire litany of ways in which women’s bodily autonomy has been snatched from them. The hysterectomy requests that have been denied because of what someone with a uterus might someday decide to do with their body… maybe. The Plan B purchase attempts that have been stymied. The forced sterilization perpetrated upon marginalized populations. The battle over abortion rights.

(There. We’ll stop there.)

But more recently, we’ve been forced to contend with a whole new flavor of body control: the denial of COVID vaccines and boosters to those who are pregnant.

This past fall, ABC News ran a story revealing that pregnant women in Mississippi were being denied the COVID vaccine despite a surge in cases. Unfortunately, the story was nothing new. Vaccine refusal for pregnant women has been a country-wide problem since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

The mixed messages pregnant women have received these past two years haven’t helped. At one point, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) were providing conflicting guidance based upon the same research. The CDC told pregnant women to consult with their doctors before making a decision about the vaccine, guidance that at the time was applauded for the way in which it gave pregnant folks the autonomy to make their own decisions (but which now seems like one more example of the lack of guidance from on high). WHO, meanwhile, recommended that pregnant women not seek out the vaccine unless they were at high risk for Covid because of work exposures or chronic conditions.

And while all guidance these days urges pregnant folks to get vaccinated, the constantly-shifting guidance of before has led to vaccine hesitancy among many. And even in cases where folks decide they do want the vaccine, some providers are refusing them, snatching that decision right out of their hands, treating them as walking wombs versus full humans.

It seems almost inevitable, considering the lack of vaccine research devoted specifically to pregnant folks.

Women Have Historically Been Barred From Medical Research

I’ve written previously about the fact that medical research has long relied upon male subjects and focused on male-dominated health issues. This focus on male subjects was so all-encompassing that, in the ’90s, there was a growing concern over the lack of the inclusion of women in clinical research. Folks in scientific and advocacy communities pointed out that this lack of inclusion naturally led to clinical decisions being made for women “based upon findings from studies of men — without evidence that they were applicable to women.”

Even as women began to be included in clinical trials, pregnant folks were still barred from research studies. And so, decisions for pregnant women continued to be made without any evidence to support them.

There were a number of reasons for this. People feared that harm might come to one’s fetus, leading to the threat of legal liability. There was concern about the complicated physiology of pregnant women, whose bodies shifted constantly and substantially over the course of a pregnancy. And some folks doubted pregnant women would even be willing to participate in clinical trials.

Even if they did consent to participate, there was concern that a fetus could not give consent to research that could possibly lead to unexpected harm. As a result, regulations were put in place that classified pregnant women as a “vulnerable” population in need of special protections in research. This despite the fact that the outcome of such research might lead to greater benefits for a wider range of pregnant folks… and their fetuses.

An Enduring Legacy

Which brings us back to today, when the very fact of womanhood seems under attack, particularly with the onslaught of new abortion bans and the threat to Roe v. Wade. All this amid a COVID surge thanks both to Omicron and, well, a lack of a consistent, systematic response to the public health crisis from our federal government. THANKS, GUYS!

Is it any surprise that pregnant folks are still being turned away as they seek out protection from the virus?

If you yourself are still confused about what you should do, let me assure you that recent research shows that both vaccines and boosters are just fine for pregnant folks and, in fact, the benefits of these shots can pass on to your fetus during pregnancy and your newborn during breastfeeding. Guidelines to that effect are echoed by many organizations, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine (SMFM), the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM), and the CDC.

In fact, the CDC reports that “people who are pregnant or recently pregnant are at an increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19 when compared to people who are not pregnant.”

Still not convinced? In October, England’s National Health Service reported that nearly 20% of the nation’s most severely ill coronavirus patients were unvaccinated pregnant women. “Pregnant women are at higher risk for severe infection from COVID resulting in hospitalization, ICU admission, and need for a ventilator,” New Jersey Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli told NJ Advance Media. She went on to report that COVID infection during pregnancy has also been associated with higher rates of preterm delivery — especially for people of color. This is troubling when Black maternal mortality rates are already so high. Pregnant Black folks are seven times more likely than white folks to die from complications stemming from pregnancy and childbirth.

In short? Get the damn vaccine.

And know that if a vaccine provider tries to turn you away, you’re well within your rights to challenge them. You can also report them to your medical provider, and also to your state or local health department.

You deserve to protect yourself. And our public health organizations are behind you.

Steph Auteri is a journalist who has written for the Atlantic, Pacific Standard, VICE, and elsewhere. Her more literary work has appeared in Poets & Writers, Creative Nonfiction, Southwest Review, and other publications. Her reported memoir, A DIRTY WORD, came out in 2018. She is the founder of Favorite Genres: horror, comics, horror comics, and narrative journalism.

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