Following a seven-week recess and a recent statement from the CDC that its funds are almost depleted, Congress continues to face an impasse in its efforts to provide an adequate and comprehensive response to the Zika virus that fully protects family planning.
The Senate recently voted against legislation this week that would provide a $1.1 billion federal aid package to fight the Zika virus at the cost of women’s healthcare, including provisions that stripped funding from Planned Parenthood and blocked contraceptive access. The Senate proposed an alternative $1.1 billion aid package in July without similarly restrictive provisions, but House Speaker Paul Ryan refuses to consider the legislation for a vote in the House. Both the current proposal and the restriction-free plan proposed by the Senate provide less aid than the $1.9 billion President Obama proposed earlier in February.
While individuals are primarily infected with Zika virus through mosquito bites, the illness can be sexually transmitted. Unborn fetuses exposed to Zika may face a myriad of negative health consequences, including microcephaly—a birth defect responsible for decreased head sizes in newborn infants—and other birth defects. Zika may also lead to eye defects, hearing loss and impaired growth.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) encouraged women to wait at least six months before getting pregnant if they live in or have traveled to Zika-infected regions, and the World Health Organization (WHO) additionally recommended that “sexually active men and women be correctly counseled and offered a full range of contraceptive methods to be able to make an informed decision about whether and when to become pregnant in order to prevent possible adverse pregnancy and fetal outcomes.” Conservative lawmakers, however, continue putting funding packages up for a vote that don’t address these recommendations.
According to the Feminist Newswire, Planned Parenthood in Puerto Rico, which is handling around 14,000 Zika cases, would have been unable to receive funding from the legislation that was put up to a vote in the Senate yesterday. It’s imperative that Congress find a solution for Zika and provide funding for research and care—but Republican lawmakers are using the global health crisis as an opportunity, instead, to attack women’s healthcare.
Feminist activists and women lawmakers are fighting back. Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL) and a number of public health experts came together at a press conference yesterday to demand Speaker Ryan bring a clean Zika funding bill up for a vote. NARAL recently initiated a new ad campaign criticizing Sen. Marco Rubio for his stances against permitting women infected with Zika to obtain an abortion and for refusing to fund women’s health clinics. The Feminist Majority Foundation has asked their members to demand Congress pass Zika funding without cutting off access to women’s healthcare.
Until Congress votes on a funding package, the CDC is unable to allocate any new resources to its Zika response efforts. Failure to come to an agreement on funding will also inhibit research efforts, clinical trials and commercially-available testing, treatment or vaccination to treat or prevent the virus.
The results of a recent survey indicates that 75 percent of Americans support the idea of increasing federal funding to fight the Zika virus—and an urgent, comprehensive response is necessary. It’s unfortunate—but sadly unsurprising—that in the midst of global health emergency, lawmakers are too busy playing political games over women’s healthcare to coordinate one.