The alarming spread of Zika virus in the United States forcing one of the most contentious abortion debates in recent memory. Gulf coast states are bracing for the worst after the first cases of the virus from local mosquitoes have broken out in Florida over the past several days.
There are 7,360 confirmed cases of Zika in the US according to the CDC, with 1,817 cases reported in the continental US. The first case of Zika spread through locally infected mosquitoes occurred in Miami Florida in late July.
As the count of locally-spread cases rises, Gulf states are on high alert. In an interview with weather.com, Dr. Anne Schuchat, a deputy director of the CDC, weighed in on increasing concerns of the U.S. risk this week, “Everything we look at with this virus seems to be a bit scarier than we initially thought,” Schuchat said. “And so while we absolutely hope we don’t see widespread local transmission in the continental U.S., we need the states to be ready for that.”
The states where the virus is most likely to spread have some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country. Republican lawmakers in the states most at risk have been chipping away at abortion rights for years. Last march, Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed one of the most sweeping abortion bills in Florida’s recent history into law. The law was straight out of the Republican’s pro-life playbook, and sought to limit women’s access to abortion care by increasing restrictions on abortion providers and clinics.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio responded to the arrival of the virus in his state by reiterating his commitment to life above all else in an interview with Politico, “All human life should be protected by our law, respective of the circumstances or condition of that life.”
Conservative lawmakers pro-life stance are coming under fire in light of the crisis. The abnormalities caused by the virus are most commonly detected in the final trimester of pregnancy—the stage when many states prohibit abortion. All of the Gulf states with many Zika-ready mosquitoes—Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Texas—prohibit abortion after 20-24 weeks. If the virus continues to spread as expected, restrictive laws could force women to give birth to children with severe brain damage and microcephaly if they cannot afford to travel to a more permissive state.