How the threat of the Zika virus brings abortion rights back in focus.

In between patients, Dr. Leah Torres, an OB/GYN specializing in reproductive and sexual health, said something illuminating.

"We have to call out what being anti-abortion really is — it's reproductive coercion," she said. In other words, being anti-abortion is forcing someone to give birth against their will.

That's why recent moves by the UN are so important. In 2001, it declared that the ability to access abortions is a human right. It even awarded reparations to K.L., a Peruvian woman who was denied the right to an abortion after discovering her fetus had a fatal birth defect.


And late last year, the UN upheld the ruling.

Case closed, right? Abortion access for all!

Wrong.

When you think of countries that violate their citizens' human rights, the U.S. probably isn't one of the first nations to come to mind. Sadly, however, when it comes to abortion, a lot of organizations and state leaders are trying to do just that. More than 43 years after the historic Roe v. Wade decision, efforts to end legal abortion are running full steam ahead, ranging from legislative actions to protests and rallies to even terrorist attacks.


Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

In many countries, abortion is just outright illegal — a clear violation of the UN's stance.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, just four territories allow abortion without exception: Cuba, Guyana, Puerto Rico, and Uruguay. In Chile, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Suriname, abortion is outlawed without exception. Antigua and Barbuda, Brazil, Dominica, Guatemala, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, and Venezuela allow abortion only when it's required to save the life of the mother.

Why the focus on these countries? Because there's a new challenge facing these areas that's making the question of abortion that much more pressing: the Zika virus.

Zika is transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito. This mosquito is also responsible for transmitting chikungunya, dengue, and yellow fever. Photo by Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images.

The Zika virus has been linked to severe birth defects, and it just so happens to thrive in many of these same countries.

Specifically, it's been linked to microcephaly, a birth defect that typically includes permanent brain damage.

In response to the spread of Zika, the government of El Salvador — which bans abortion — is advising women not to get pregnant until 2018. As it's sometimes not so easy as to simply not get pregnant, that advice is not especially helpful.

Torres says there are a host of reasons someone may not want to give birth to a child with a severe birth defect like microcephaly.

"It may be inhumane to give birth to a child with severe birth defects, or parents may be incapable of caring for them, but only the one facing the decision of continuing the pregnancy can decide."

Simply put, she adds, "people must be empowered to make decisions regarding life they bring into the world."

A six-week-old baby born with microcephaly. The heads of babies born with microcephaly are significantly smaller than a healthy baby's. Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images.

Between the risks of giving birth to a child with microcephaly and the general risks of pregnancy, abortion is a truly necessary option.

"People have this notion that because pregnancy is a part of our reproductive lives and continuing the species that it is perfectly safe," Torres says. "It is far from safe."

Having an abortion early in a pregnancy is 14 times safer than carrying the fetus to term and giving birth. There are risks involved in any medical procedure, and it's barbaric to revoke someone's right to decide what risks are worth taking on to them.

"When we undermine the risks undertaken and sacrifices made by those who do give birth to our children, we are showing a severe lack of gratitude and it is inhumanly insulting."

Pro-choice activists at the Supreme Court on the 43rd anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision. Photo by Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images.

Yes, abortion rights are human rights. Now it's time we all started acting like it.

Nobody — not your Congressperson, not Dr. Torres, not me, not your next-door neighbor — should have a say in what you choose to do with your own body. Whether someone has an abortion is a very personal, often difficult decision. No one will ever force you to have an abortion, nor should you be able to force someone to give birth. That's just how it works.

Sadly, the UN's ruling is mostly toothless. That's why it's on us to advocate on behalf of people to have the right to choose whether an abortion is the right option for them. It's especially important in situations like the Zika epidemic.

Whether someone's reason behind getting an abortion is the Zika virus or it simply being the wrong time in their life to have a child — or anything else — that decision needs to be their call, not anybody else's.

True

When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

Photo by Tod Perry

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