How Zika Could Change The Abortion Debate

Photographed by Tayler Smith.
Abortions are still controversial in the U.S. — especially late-term abortions, which are heavily restricted in most states. But a new poll conducted by STAT and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health suggests Americans' views may shift when Zika enters the picture.

Babies born to mothers who were infected with the Zika virus while pregnant are at a higher risk for microcephaly, a birth defect in which the baby's head is much smaller than normal. Zika-related cases of microcephaly tend to be especially severe, coming with vision issues like retinal lesions that can lead to blindness, as well as more severe brain damage that causes impaired cognitive development and delayed motor functions and speech, among other things.

The condition may not be detectable by ultrasound until the third trimester, which begins at 28 weeks. State laws vary, but in 12 states, abortions are illegal after 20 weeks (which is well before the standard of viability set by the Supreme Court). Three states have bans on third-trimester abortions, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

While Americans have historically been opposed to later-term abortions, the new poll reveals a dramatic change in opinion. According to a previous poll of 1,010 U.S. adults conducted earlier this summer, the majority (61%) of Americans oppose abortions after 24 weeks, while only 23% are in favor. However, in the current poll of 1,016 people across the U.S., responses are almost the opposite: A whopping 59% of respondents said they would be in favor of late-term abortions if there were a serious possibility the baby could be born with Zika-related microcephaly. Only 28% said they opposed the idea.

As the number of pregnant women in the U.S. with Zika (currently at 479) continues to climb, and locally-acquired cases have been confirmed in Florida, this issue has become especially urgent. Earlier this week, the CDC called for the government to make it easier for women who want to delay pregnancy to get their hands on the most effective forms of birth control.

Meanwhile, Congress has still not come to an agreement about funding to fight Zika. Our current funding is running low, threatening to halt progress for a promising experimental vaccine, Reuters reported yesterday. But in an ironic twist, the holdup is over controversial language Republicans added to the bill that would limit abortion access. Now Congress is out on summer recess, leaving our funding situation in limbo.
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