Yesterday, the Senate blocked the House’s inadequate Zika response bill that would cut funding for Planned Parenthood. The Senate previously passed a $1.1 billion Zika package in July that does not contain harmful restrictions to women’s healthcare, but House Speaker Paul Ryan refuses to bring it to the House floor for a vote.
Public health experts have been clear that family planning is the key tool for combating the Zika virus, which can be sexually transmitted and has led to severe neurological birth defects in infants born to Zika-infected mothers. The bill that was defeated yesterday would have prevented Planned Parenthood in Puerto Rico—which has nearly 14,000 cases of confirmed Zika virus disease—from receiving Zika funds. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has encouraged women who have traveled or live in Zika infected areas to wait at least six months before getting pregnant, making these pernicious funding restrictions for women’s health clinics that provide contraception absurd.
This morning, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) held a press conference, along with 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, to demand that Speaker Ryan bring a clean Zika funding bill up for a vote.
Congresswoman Wilson, whose district is at the heart of the Zika virus outbreak in Florida, implored the Republican leadership to move quickly on Zika funding. In August, in the absence of a Zika funding deal, President Obama reallocated funds from the Department of Health and Human Services to address the public health crisis, but those funds are expected to run out at the end of this month. Failure to pass a funding bill will stymie efforts to develop commercially-available testing for Zika, treatment for the virus, or a vaccine. Both Wilson and Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz explained that the people of Florida, and in particular pregnant individuals, are living in a state of terror waiting for help to arrive.
There is not much known about the Zika virus, but two things we know for sure are that it can be sexually transmitted and that unborn fetuses are most at risk of suffering devastating health consequences, making access to family planning even more crucial during this uncertain time. The inclusion of “poison pill” provisions that would cut off funding for birth control therefore undermines a robust Zika response. Rep. Wilson put it more bluntly, stating that Congress was “gambling with a developing brain of an unborn fetus.”
The Florida Department of Health has identified two areas in Miami-Dade County with Zika infected mosquitoes, and pregnant women have been advised not to go near those neighborhoods, leading to a dramatic decline in attendance to those areas for all. Wilson, whose district encompasses those no-go zones, explained that in addition to the public health consequences of Zika on her district, the travel advisory’s economic impact has been devastating, as women of reproductive age opt to move elsewhere and businesses suffer from the lack of tourism.
The National Institute of Health has said they will be unable to move forward with clinical trials without funding by October 1. Meanwhile, 16 babies in the United States have already been born with microcephaly, a birth defect the consequences of which we have yet to fully understand because of inadequate research funding. Scientists say they have no idea how long Zika survives in one’s semen or blood stream.
Congresswoman DeLauro argued that if the United States generals, not scientific experts, had come to Congress pleading for $1.9 billion in funding for a national security crisis, there wouldn’t have even been a discussion.
The requested funding is a tiny fraction of the national budget, and the cost to taxpayers must be weighed against the cost of a full-blown Zika public health epidemic. Zika is already present in every state in the continental U.S., except Wyoming, and Zika infected mosquitoes are expected to appear in other areas of the country.
A survey released yesterday shows that three-quarters of Americans support increased federal funding to combat the Zika virus. The Feminist Majority Foundation has asked individuals to contact their Representative and Senators today to call on Congress to pass Zika funding without cutting off access to women’s healthcare.