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Zika is about to hit states with the most restrictive abortion laws in the US

Defects caused by Zika appear in the final trimester of pregnancy, which could be a problem in states that restrict late-term abortions.

by Alex Thompson
Aug 9 2016, 3:35pm

Ana Beatriz, una bebé con microcefalia, en Lagoa do Carro, Pernambuco, Brasil. EPA/Percio Campos

The states most likely to see the spread of the Zika virus have some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country. If unchanged, these state laws will compel women to carry babies to term even if they know their child will have extreme brain abnormalities from the Zika virus.

As the first cases of the virus from local mosquitoes have broken out in Florida over the past several days and other Gulf coast states brace themselves for outbreaks, these birth scenarios could set up the most contentious abortion debate in recent memory.

Responding to the recent viral events in his home state, Florida Senator Marco Rubio told Politico on Sunday that abortion should be prohibited even in Zika cases: "all human life should be protected by our law, irrespective of the circumstances or condition of that life."

"In short, kill the mosquito, kill the virus. Don't kill the baby"

The abnormalities caused by the virus, however, are most often detected in final trimester of pregnancy and all of the states near the Gulf Coast with many Zika-ready mosquitoes -- Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Texas -- prohibit abortion after 20 to 24 weeks except in rare circumstances, according to analysis from the Guttmacher Institute. If Zika spreads in the coming months, many pregnant women could be compelled to give birth to children with severe brain impairment unless they can afford to travel to a more permissive state.

Carol Tobias, President of the National Right to Life Committee, wrote in an email that she supported Rubio's position. "In short, kill the mosquito, kill the virus. Don't kill the baby," she said. "I certainly hope our country has not fallen so far that we would decide it's okay to kill human beings, including unborn children, because they have a disability."

Hillary Clinton's Director of Women's Media disagreed and told VICE News that's "women's personal health decisions should be made by a woman in consultation with her family, her faith, and her doctor - not by politicians."

Florida's Zika outbreak sparks emergency response and travel warning

The political pressure will only increase as Zika spreads through the deep Southern states over the coming months, as some of those states' health officials expect. "We have all the ingredients for local transmission now," said Dr. Frank Welch, Louisiana's Medical Director for Community Preparedness, as he laid out the various scenarios for an outbreak. "It could be bad," he added since the Aedes species mosquitoes are found throughout the Deep South.

The disabilities in children can be devastating. Many newborns exposed to the Zika virus have unnaturally small heads, also known as microcephaly. In the most severe cases, the child's brain development is so stunted that they will be unable to reach basic milestones and have constant seizures, damaged nerves, and permanently rigid limbs.

A STAT-Harvard poll released this week, however, found 59 percent of respondents believe women should be able terminate a pregnancy after 24 weeks if tests confirm a serious possibility of Zika-related microcephaly.

While this debate is only just arriving in the United States, Latin America has been debating their own tight abortion laws the past year as thousands of babies with Zika-related birth defects have been born. Roman Catholicism runs wide and deep throughout South and Central America and abortion is mostly prohibited. As a result, most of the region's governments have urged all women to avoid pregnancy in the near future. In El Salvador, where abortion is illegal in all cases, the government asked its women to abstain from pregnancy until at least 2018.

The Center for Disease Control has already recorded more than 1,800 travel-related cases of Zika in the United States. Nearly 500 of those cases involved pregnant women, some of whom have delivered babies with birth defects.

"The outcomes can be severe for pregnant women," says PhD Margaret Honein, the co-lead of the CDC's Pregnancy and Birth Defects Task Force for Zika Response. "It is critically important that pregnant women take steps to protect themselves from mosquito bites."

But if pregnant women in the Gulf States cannot avoid every mosquito, expect Zika abortions to come up in the first Trump-Hillary debate.