The XX Factor

Majority of Americans Support Legal Late-Term Abortions for Zika-Related Birth Defects

Adult female mosquitos at the Sun Yat-Sen University-Michigan University Joint Center of Vector Control for Tropical Disease in Guangzhou, China, the world’s largest mosquito factory.

Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

A new poll from STAT and Harvard University has found that the majority of Americans support legal late-term abortions in cases where the fetus has probably developed Zika-related microcephaly.

In a telephone survey of 1,016 people conducted in late July, 59 percent said they would favor legal abortion after 24 weeks of pregnancy if the woman “is infected with Zika virus and a health professional believes there is a serious possibility that the baby would be born with this severe birth defect that includes an abnormally small head and brain damage.” Another 3 percent said it “depends,” and 28 percent opposed legal late-term abortions altogether.

This marks a radical shift from the opinions of U.S. residents on late-term abortions unrelated to Zika. In a STAT-Harvard telephone poll just a week earlier, which did not mention Zika or microcephaly, 61 percent of respondents said they opposed legal abortion after 24 weeks, and just 23 percent favored it. Among Democrats, 34 percent favored legal late-term abortions in general, and 72 percent favored it in cases where there’s a high probability of Zika-related birth defects. Even 48 percent of Republicans were down with legal late-term abortions in those cases, compared with 12 percent in normal circumstances.

Polls like this eat into the much-trumpeted anti-abortion rationale that certain (if not all) abortions should be illegal because a fetus has personhood rights, so abortion is murder. If abortion were truly murder, microcephaly wouldn’t make a difference. Members of the American public may have a more nuanced opinion on abortion than that, but many conservative elected officials do not. In February, congressional Republicans urged pregnant women infected with Zika to accept microcephaly rather than consider abortion.

Complicating this poll result is the fact that there is no yes/no test for microcephaly before birth. Ultrasounds performed in the late second trimester and early third trimester can sometimes indicate the defect’s characteristic stunted head development. But often, by the time a doctor can make a reasonably confident conjecture that a fetus has microcephaly, it’s too late for the pregnant woman to consider abortion. Most states restrict abortions after fetal viability, around 24 weeks, but the Supreme Court has ruled that these restrictions must have exceptions for the life and health—both physical and mental—of the pregnant woman. Only seven states and Washington, D.C., have no restrictions on when a woman can terminate her pregnancy: Alaska, Colorado, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, and Vermont.

STAT reports that, as of Thursday, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 479 U.S. women have contracted Zika while pregnant. Fifteen of them have had babies with Zika-affiliated birth defects. Zika has recently made landfall in the U.S.—in addition to the more than 1,000 confirmed U.S. cases of Zika contracted by people who’ve traveled to the Caribbean or Central and South America (or had sex with someone who did), at least 15 people have contracted the virus in downtown Miami in the last week or two.

July’s STAT-Harvard poll also found that most people didn’t know Congress had left for summer recess without passing a bill funding Zika prevention and response. Forty-three percent of respondents said they didn’t think that was a problem.