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Reproduction redux : nature, women, and sovereignty in the Zika public health crisis in Puerto Rico Patchin, Paige Marie


In 2015 a new strand of the Zika virus emerged with a single genetic mutation. Suddenly, a virus that had once had an innocuous impact on human life could interrupt a fetus’s physiological development, producing a condition known as “microcephaly.” With dual transmission mechanisms of mosquitoes and sex, Zika ignited fears about the permeability of nation-state borders to infectious disease, as well as rising healthcare costs. Health economists and other experts “priced” a single case of microcephaly at USD $10 million or more across a lifetime, such that “Zika babies” were seen to compromise the futures of other children. In the United States, these fears were mapped onto the “unincorporated territory” of Puerto Rico, where one-fifth of the population was predicted to contract the virus. In this dissertation I explore how Zika was culturally, aesthetically, and scientifically constructed as an emergency in the United States and detail U.S. government Zika intervention in Puerto Rico. I argue that public health expertise and practice positioned Puerto Rican women as the threshold between Zika and the economic future of the U.S. nation, “responsibilizing” them for that future. This hinged on the contradictory mapping of Puerto Rico as inside the United States in terms of disease risk and outside the United States in terms of political rights, which allowed chemical fumigation to be undertaken without consent and the insertion of contraceptive implants into bodies without providing infrastructures for safe removal. Altogether, I take the diffusion and management of Zika in Puerto Rico as a point of departure for a wider discussion about health and reproduction—note that the contemplation of these two concepts is not exhausted by “reproductive health”—amidst global ecological tumult. It is my contention that poor women and teenage girls in particular places are being positioned as a massified bodily threshold between an unruly nonhuman world, on one hand, and economic and biological human futures, on the other. I posit that this emergent logic is much broader than the making and management of Zika, is destructive for women, and is continually subverted by them.

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