Pregnant women in South and Latin America who contract Zika, a rapidly spreading mosquito-borne virus linked to severe birth defects and deformities in babies, should not have access to abortion, Republican House leaders said Wednesday.
"This push for more abortion access is heartbreaking, especially since there are different degrees of microcephaly," Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, said at a hearing about the virus.
Microcephaly is a condition strongly linked to the Zika virus that causes babies to be born with abnormally small heads and brains that aren't fully developed, which can lead to developmental problems, including seizures, cognitive delays, motor problems and hearing loss.
Some countries where the Zika virus is spreading, including Brazil, El Salvador and Colombia, have recommended that women delay getting pregnant for up to two years. Those countries have some of the strictest abortion laws in the world, and it's difficult for poor women to get contraception. El Salvador, for instance, has no exceptions on its abortion ban and has even jailed women who have had miscarriages.
In light of the epidemic, the United States Agency for International Development has recommended that the U.S. offer contraception and family planning services in Latin America to assist affected populations and keep the virus from spreading. Reproductive rights advocates are urging the endemic countries to loosen their abortion laws to accommodate pregnant women who contract Zika. House Democrats also emphasized the importance of increasing birth control access for women at the hearing on Wednesday, since the U.S. has longstanding prohibitions on foreign aid money being used to pay or advocate for abortion.
"This isn't about abortion or not abortion," said Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.). "It's about making sure those women who are not planning on pregnancy have the ability to not get pregnant until we know what we're dealing with."
House Republicans running the Zika virus hearing avoided the issue of contraception and family planning access for women in endemic countries and instead urged women to welcome babies born with microcephaly. Duncan acknowledged that "many women do not have the luxury of simply choosing to wait" to get pregnant, but added that abortion access is not the answer, because many babies born with microcephaly "go on to lead very normal lives."
"Each child is made in the image of God and has inherent worth," he said.
Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) said the U.S. needs to work harder to "ensure that any child born with with disabilities from this or any other infection is welcomed, loved and gets the care that he or she needs." To back up his point, he highlighted the headline of a BBC article published earlier this month: "Microcephaly: 'It's not the end of the world.'"