Ted Cruz has won Iowa, primarily on the back of the Evangelical vote. The Republican party is clearly seriously divided at the moment, but outside the disputed politics of the Presidential election, it’s pretty clear that Republican candidates for House and Senate are generally very anti-choice. There is talk of a government shutdown over funding for Planned Parenthood, and with Cruz as one of the two leading presidential candidates the anti-choice movement is even more prominent than usual in Republican politics. Cruz himself is supported by a scary bunch of Evangelicals who seem to advocate the most extreme anti-abortion laws in history: executing doctors who provide abortions and prosecuting abortion itself as murder. Cruz is the most extreme representative of this ideology, but in general the Republican party is unrelenting in its opposition to abortion, even after rape or when the mother’s life is in danger.
Normally this kind of politics doesn’t affect many people, especially the people who support it, so it’s easy to pull off. Even in a country with a fragile health system like the USA, most women get decent medical care during pregnancy and most conditions that might risk a mother’s health can be managed, so they have no reason (or desire) to have an abortion. This means that the issue of medical abortions doesn’t affect many people, so campaigning to close “loopholes” is easy, because most people won’t ever be affected by them. Similarly, most Americans can afford to buy their condoms or pills from a normal service provider, so it’s no big deal if Planned Parenthood cops a little bit of stick from the Republican crazies. Planned Parenthood appears to be one of the USA’s most trusted institutions but the people who trust it probably don’t vote, so it’s not going to be a big vote-loser to attack it. This has meant that historically, while anti-choice politics obviously riles up some people and loses a certain amount of votes, it is able to garner votes from a fairly large group of people who can be morally “pure” about abortion issues safe in the knowledge that they probably won’t face those issues.
All that will change once Zika virus hits the USA. Zika is spread by mosquitos, which means that its victims are blameless – although there is evidence of sexual transmission, it’s not possible to cast away the victims as mere sluts, because it is also spread by a mosquito that is endemic to the southern USA. Alarming reports from Texas suggest that conditions are ripe for its spread this summer, so it will be hitting the American population hard during the election season. If that happens then the Republican heartland is going to be hit by a disease that is an environmental rather than a behavioral risk, and which has only one major consequence: birth defects. The only treatment for pregnant women affected by this disease is abortion, and modern ante-natal care will ensure that those women affected by the disease have to face that horrible choice during the summer before the election.
And at that point, they will discover just how hard it is to get an abortion in America, and how full of hate their own community is. If the worst happens and Zika virus spreads rapidly through the southern part of the USA it’s possible that the CDC will further recommend women consider delaying their pregnancies (as some Latin American countries have). This advice is going to reach millions of women at exactly the same time as the Republican party is loudly demanding a shutdown of the government over Planned Parenthood – the leading organization that can supply the goods needed to ensure that this disease doesn’t create an epidemic of microcephaly.
It’s possible that the Republican party is going to be fighting its congressional elections on a strong platform of absolute opposition to abortion at exactly the same time as millions of American women are at risk of a disease whose only effect is a condition that can only be cured by abortion. During this period the media will be stoking both Zika fear and anti-choice activism to a fever pitch (especially if the Senate try to force a shutdown over Planned Parenthood). Imagine if the Republicans manage to shut down the government over Planned Parenthood at exactly the time the CDC and EPA need funds to support a nationwide campaign against a mosquito-borne virus that causes birth defects.
Such a strategy surely can’t end well. It will force most ordinary “anti-choice” people to confront the depth of their opposition to abortion, at which point they will suddenly discover that actually, while they are pro-life, they’re also pro-choice. They’ll suddenly realize that this whole abortion/contraception debate has nuance that they missed because they were comfortable, healthy and conservative, and they missed all the nuances of other people’s lives. There’s not really anything wrong with being clueless about things you never experienced – that’s human life, and I think it’s a very important part of the appeal of anti-abortion rhetoric, which can work very well so long as the majority of people hearing it never need an abortion. But Zika may well change all that.
If the Republicans go to the 2016 election at the same time as Zika is spreading across the USA, will their anti-abortion message kill them? That’s a fascinating reason to lose an election – especially given the putative relationship between global warming and spread of Zika. That’s a lot of chickens coming home to roost …