By now, most Americans are familiar with the Zika virus, the mosquito-spread disease that’s left thousands of babies with shrunken skulls in Latin America. Pictures of screaming infants with tiny heads and fearful women sleeping under mosquito nets have attracted sympathy across social media platforms and concern from members of Congress — but the epidemic remains a distant, foreign battle for many living in the United States.
In many of the Latin American countries where Zika is rapidly spreading, reproductive health care remains out of reach for women at risk of infection. Brazil actually criminalizes women for seeking an abortion due to the fetal brain damage, microcephaly, paired with Zika. For infected women already living in poverty, this leaves them with a tragically unaffordable illness to tend to.
These may seem like faraway punishments. But as the virus stealthily hops the U.S. border, and heads straight for southern states already plagued with the country’s worst anti-abortion laws, it’s not hard to see distinct parallels between these ‘extreme’ Zika-infected countries and the United States. And no one is acknowledging it.
“We haven’t really been focused on Zika,” said Heather Busby, director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, a prominent reproductive rights group. “It’s really part of a larger problem regarding the lack of reproductive health care at all levels in Texas.”
Currently, Florida has the most confirmed cases of Zika in the United States — 70. New York, the state with the highest number of international visitors, follows with 43 cases. Texas, with 23, takes third. After analyzing the environment of countries most affected by the Zika virus, the National Center for Atmospheric Research concluded that cities in southern Florida and impoverished areas in southern Texas may be particularly vulnerable to local virus transmission.
Coincidentally, these regions are also home to some of the country’s harshest limitations on a woman’s right to a safe abortion.
While abortion is still technically legal in both Florida and Texas, unlike countries like Brazil and El Salvador, increasingly restrictive state laws have made access to an abortion nearly impossible. The Supreme Court is currently deliberating on a Texas law that places unnecessary regulations on abortion clinic facilities under the guise of protecting women’s health — regulations that have ironically forced dozens of safe women’s health clinics to close across the state.
A recent study by the Texas Policy Evaluation Project -- a University of Texas research group that’s been tracking the state’s reproductive health policies -- found that 25 percent of Texas women seeking an abortion live more than 139 miles from an abortion clinic now that state laws have forced 38 of its 48 clinics to close. Overburdened by patients, the ten remaining clinics have had to make women wait a dangerously long time before having the procedure. In some cases, they've even had to turn women away, since they had no available appointment slots open. An earlier study by the Texas researchers found that as many as 240,000 Texas women have tried to end their pregnancy at home -- a possible response to limited care.
Florida, meanwhile, has just passed a law that will pull all state funding of preventive health services (anything from a pap smear to HIV test) if the clinic where they're offered also administers abortion. Like Texas, the state has also passed several laws on abortion facilities that will inevitably close needed clinics across the state.
Following news of Zika's fast spread, the United Nations called for countries to loosen their abortion bans and expand access to birth control -- especially among countries that were recommending women delay their pregnancies without offering other reproductive health resources to help them. U.S. Senate Democrats urged their GOP counterparts to agree tosend birth control funding to Zika-plagued countries.
But no U.S. lawmaker -- let alone health organization -- has mentioned Zika's looming threat to areas lacking sufficient abortion access on their own soil.
Of course, the number of Zika cases in the United States is infinitesimal compared to the estimated 4 million in Latin America. But lawmakers know Zika is on the horizon. Both Texas and Florida have begun organizing efforts to mosquito-proof cities -- especially in impoverished neighborhoods.
Asked about Zika's threat to U.S. women, the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health (NLIRH), an advocacy group with roots in both Texas and Florida, spoke only of the risk for those living in Latin America. But Jessica González-Rojas, executive director of NLIRH, added: "We look forward to continued research of the Zika virus as well as clear recommendations for how the impact on Latinas living in the United States can be minimized."
Some experts are predicting an "uphill battle" in the U.S. if Zika cases continue to rise.
"The moment we begin seeing cases of microcephaly across the country, politics will cede," said R. Alta Charo, a bioethics and law professor at University of Wisconsin. "It has to get personal. It has to get dramatic."
Women in Texas and Florida aren't the only ones at risk from the potential spread of Zika -- and are far from the only Americans living in states with harsh policies that mirror Latin America's stringent abortion laws. Just this month, Indiana lawmakers approved a sweeping new anti-abortion law that's alarmingly similar to restrictions in Brazil, where lawmakers are increasing the penalties for women who have an abortion because their child has microcephaly -- the skull-shrinking disease found in babies of women infected by Zika. Indiana's new law also bans women from choosing abortion in cases when their fetus has genetic abnormalities like Down Syndrome or microcephaly.
And across the country, women may struggle to end a pregnancy based on potential birth defects. In many states, abortion is banned after 20 weeks into a woman's pregnancy. However, many birth defects -- including Zika -- can only be detected in fetuses who are further along in development, often after this 20-week cutoff. Charo said she worries women who want a child, but fear they may have the virus, will decide to have an abortion anyway, before knowing whether or not their fetus has Zika.
"Because of dire circumstances, women may be ending a healthy pregnancy," she said.
Ironically, the opposition to abortion in the United States may also prevent scientists from studying Zika to learn more about how to stop its spread. Anti-abortion lawmakers are working hard to halt research that is vital to developing a potential Zika vaccine and understanding Zika-related birth defects. Their reasoning should come as no surprise: This research relies on fetal tissue cells -- and fetal tissue sometimes comes from aborted fetuses. Thus, this research supports abortion and GOP lawmakers want it gone.
Charo, who testified in Congress in support of fetal tissue research, called this attempt to ban research ridiculous, and an attempt by conservative politicians to enhance the stigma around abortion. In some states where fetal issue research is already banned, scientists can perform an autopsy on a decreased infant -- but take no information (like cells) from the body to better understand other fetal diseases through further research.
"It makes absolutely no sense to learn something about one infant, but not be able to use it to help others," she said. "There are no similar laws with deceased adults. It's simply symbolic."
With mosquito season on the horizon, there's no clear path forward. Ana Ayala, a professor at Georgetown’s O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law, told Politico that Zika's arrival in the U.S. could be a "perfect storm."
"You’re seeing an intersection of global health security, infectious disease and reproductive rights," she said.