The spread of the Zika virus may be changing Americans' views on late-term abortion, presenting a new challenge for abortion opponents.
Polls conducted in July by STAT News and Harvard University's T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that people asked about late-term abortion were largely opposed to it until the question was framed to include babies who may have microcephaly caused by Zika.
Then, 59 percent of respondents said they would support abortion after 24 weeks, in contrast to 23 percent who said they would when microcephaly wasn't mentioned, Helen Branswell of STAT reported.
Support for late-term abortions when microcephaly is suspected increased even among Republicans, according to STAT.
Forty-eight percent said they would support the late-term abortion of a baby with microcephaly, compared with just 12 percent when not asked specifically about Zika defects.
Among Democrats, the numbers climbed to 72 percent in favor of aborting Zika babies after 24 weeks, compared with 34 when microcephaly was not mentioned.
“The data are clear that although people aren’t in favor of late-term abortion in general, they are sympathetic to women when their pregnancies can be affected by Zika virus,” Gillian SteelFisher, deputy director of the Harvard Opinion Research Program, told Branswell.
Former presidential candidate Marco Rubio, however, told Politico that the fear of Zika complications is no reason to abort a baby.
"I understand a lot of people disagree with my view, but I believe that all human life is worthy of protection of our laws. And when you present it in the context of Zika or any prenatal condition, it’s a difficult question and a hard one. But if I’m going to err, I’m going to err on the side of life," Rubio said.
A Colorado doctor who performs late-term abortions said it would be inconsistent for people to hold one opinion about abortions for Zika babies, and another about babies with other health problems.
“There are many, many reasons why women seek a late abortion. And many of those reasons have to do with catastrophic fetal abnormalities that are not discovered until late in pregnancy,” Dr. Warren Hern, who runs an abortion clinic in Boulder, Colorado, told Branswell.
The website Lifenews.com called the poll results "shocking" and said they would embolden abortion advocates to push for more abortions of potentially disabled babies.
And it cited a Washington Post story about panicked South American women seeking abortion pills by mail because they are afraid of Zika and its effects. Some of the women already had tested positive for Zika; others were just afraid they would contract it.
Zika, which is transmitted by mosquitoes or sexual relations, affects most people for only a week or two, with symptoms that can include a rash, fever, headache and red, itchy eyes.
In some people, it can lead to an autoimmune disease called Guillain-Barre Syndrome, but the greatest danger the virus presents is to unborn babies of infected women. Not all babies of infected women are affected, however.
Estimates vary, but STAT has previously reported that fewer than 15 percent are born with brain damage and abnormally small heads.
Although the percentage of affected babies is relatively low, their pictures are being widely circulated, which may affect public perception.
In its latest numbers on Zika infections in America, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said there are 479 pregnant women in the continental U.S. who are suspected of having Zika, up 46 from the previous week.