Zika virus is here. As of this writing, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reporting that Florida, with 28 confirmed, has approximately twice as many cases as any other state.
All the identified cases in the U.S. thus far are travel-related, but if the rate of infection in the U.S. mimics that of our southerly neighbors in Central and South America, as temperatures climb over the next few months, giving rise to billions of potentially virus-carrying mosquitoes, Zika is going to sweep the nation, leaving thousands and thousands, perhaps millions, infected in its wake. And there’s no amount of poison that mosquito control can spray to change that grim reality.
For the vast majority of those infected, Zika virus is an unpleasant inconvenience; its symptoms mimic that of the flu combined with pink eye and a rash. The virus is not life-threatening in any but the most extreme circumstances.
But the real victims of Zika cannot walk or talk, and many of them never will. Pregnant women who contract Zika can pass the virus on to their unborn child, in whom it can cause microcephaly, or an abnormally small head and brain. The condition ranges from mild and essentially unnoticeable, to severe and extremely debilitating, even potentially fatal. According to the CDC, infants with severe microcephaly may be so intellectually disabled that they will never learn to speak, and may also suffer from seizures, difficulty eating and/or swallowing, hearing and/or vision loss and balance and coordination problems. Or they could die.
The severity of the epidemic — the World Health Organization estimates there have been three to four million cases in the Americas in the past year — and the lack of a cure led the government of El Salvador to urge all women to delay pregnancy until 2018.
But what about women who are already pregnant and contract Zika? Abortion is illegal in many countries most affected by the virus, including El Salvador, leaving women with two untenable choices: Get an abortion and risk imprisonment, or carry to term and risk having a child with severe, lifelong disabilities, or a baby who dies in infancy.
If some of our local lawmakers have their way, pregnant Floridians who contract Zika will be faced with the same options.
Right now there are several bills kicking around the Florida Legislature that could outlaw or severely restrict women’s access to abortion. (See “The Cost of Silence,” Dec. 16)
One such bill would make performing an abortion, or operating a place where the (statistically safe) procedures are performed, a first-degree felony punishable by up to 30 years in prison. Co-introducers of this bill, the “Florida for Life Act,” include Northeast Floridian representatives Charles Van Zant, R.-District 19, and Travis W. Cummings, R.-District 18.
Van Zant also co-sponsors a bill with Rep. Jay Fant, R.-District 15, which would require doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at hospitals within 30 miles of their practice, a requirement that could close half of Florida’s abortion providers. Both the American Medical Association and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists oppose this bill.
In its worst form, getting an abortion is an arguably unethical choice by an irresponsible woman who, for seemingly inexplicable reasons, would rather have repeated abortions than take precautions to avoid pregnancy. In its best form, it saves a woman’s life.
Certain of the hordes of extremist, borderline militant “Christians,” not to mention the voters who elect them, seem
to have no problem saying from the isolation chambers of the legislature that abortion is wrong, wrong, wrong, no matter the circumstances.
But how easy is it to counsel an 11-year-old survivor of incestuous rape that she must carry to term? Or to tell a single mother that she has no choice but to have another child, even if it means her family will lose their house and be forced to go on welfare because her employer isn’t required to provide paid maternity leave? Or to comfort families whose beloved wives, sisters, daughters and mothers died from sepsis caused by dirty back-alley abortions? Or to explain why there’s a shortage of qualified physicians to provide reproductive care because the state has thrown so many in prison? Make no mistake, these things will happen if abortion is outlawed.
By continuing to wage a legislative war against reproductive freedom, our representatives are substituting their judgment for that of the individual; they’re telling women that their judgment is superior to ours, no matter the circumstances of our lives.
Abortion is not a black-and-white issue. It is a complex, nuanced issue with variations too broad to be crammed into a categorical ban. That’s why it has been legal since 1973. Because the best person to decide whether a woman should have a baby or get an abortion, no matter the reason, is the woman herself.