Congress has adjourned for the summer, with no additional funding in place to fight the Zika virus. Most Americans want more federal money devoted to fighting the virus, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey, and the Obama administration asked for $1.9 billion back in February to do just that. Yet Republicans repeatedly found ways to hamper or reject legislation that would provide the money. It’s a dangerous gamble fueled by partisan politics, and women’s health is — once again — at the center of the fight.
In response to Congress’ lack of action, Tom Friedan, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director said, “There are projects that will not happen because the funding isn’t available.” When it comes to pregnant women, this delay has the potential to result in real health risks.
The zika virus is primarily transmitted to people by mosquitoes infected by the virus. It can also be sexually transmitted. Many people with the Zika virus won’t have symptoms or will have only mild symptoms. But for women who are pregnant, the risks of infection are much more serious: babies born to infected women are much more likely to have serious birth impairments, including microcephaly.
So far, there are 1,306 reported cases of the mosquito-borne virus in the United States — all brought from travelers who have been in Zika-infested areas of the world. 346 of the reported cases are in pregnant women. However, as mosquito season begins in the U.S., health officials believe pregnant women are at risk of getting infected from local mosquitoes. Without adequate funding, prevention efforts will grind to a halt or money will need to be pulled from other equally as critical coffers.
There is particular concern for women who, because of where they live, have minimal access to contraception, family planning, and abortion services. In Latin America and the Caribbean, two hard-hit regions, women of childbearing age have been told to “avoid pregnancy” without being given adequate access to contraception or safe abortion care.
In a report on the Zika virus, Joerge Dreweke of the Guttmacher Institute discusses the threat the Zika virus poses to people in the United States, especially to those who are most underserved:
Those in the United States with the fewest resources may be at the greatest risk of negative health and economic consequences from Zika. Poor women and women of color fare worse than others on a range of critical indicators, from access to health insurance to unintended pregnancy rates to difficulty obtaining a needed abortion. Disadvantaged women are also more likely than others to lack the resources to parent a child born with microcephaly, a situation that is further exacerbated by an absence of affordable health care, paid family leave, paid sick leave and a living wage for many women and families.
That’s why the Republican response to Zika funding has been unacceptable to Democrats and women’s health advocates.
Over several months, Republicans have hamstrung efforts by Democrats to fund anti-Zika efforts by including anti-abortion language in the legislation, stripping money from the Affordable Care Act, and barring Planned Parenthood from receiving funds. In late June, after voting and volleying on bills designed to be difficult to pass, a measure to fund the full $1.9 billion originally requested by President Obama failed. According to the Women’s Health Policy Report,
Liberal lawmakers in the Senate said they voted against the measure because its prohibitions on funding providers such as Planned Parenthood would undermine efforts to protect reproductive-age women, who are especially vulnerable to the virus.
In an op-ed co-written by Planned Parenthood and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the writers argue the critical importance of family planning and education to anti-Zika efforts in the U.S. and cite the CDC recommendation that ensuring access to voluntary family planning is the primary strategy to reduce Zika-related pregnancy complications. And yet the Republican bills stripped funding for family planning.
Women who are of childbearing age, able to get pregnant, or who are pregnant have found themselves used as pawns in political arguments about reproductive rights — especially those who do not have access to adequate reproductive and sexual health care. These are also the women who most benefit from access to quality information about the virus, and ways to protect themselves from it. Planned Parenthood offers these services to millions of women who visit their health centers across the country.
When a new Zika funding proposal was put forth last week by Democrats that sought middle ground on women’s health access, Republicans rejected it. Now Congress has recessed for seven weeks, until September 6, without funding a federal anti-Zika prevention effort. It means that the National Institutes of Health and the CDC could run out of money to continue to research, develop and test a potential vaccine, and to understand more about how the Zika virus affects pregnant women. It means that once again women’s health and lives are disrupted by the inability of Congress to put health before politics.