WASHINGTON — Two Republican lawmakers leading a congressional hearing on the Zika virus Wednesday said they hope pregnant women who become infected will not have abortions to avoid giving birth to children with a birth defect.
By linking abortion politics to the Zika virus, Representatives Jeff Duncan of South Carolina and Christopher Smith of New Jersey raised a prospect that worries public health advocates: that President Barack Obama’s request for $1.8 billion in emergency funds to fight the virus could get derailed by battles over whether the money could be used for abortions.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the mosquito-borne virus is strongly associated with microcephaly, a congenital abnormality in which babies are born with undersized heads, and sometimes, small brains and a range of of health and cognitive difficulties.
Testifying at the hearing, CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden said new research has provided more evidence of a link between Zika and microcephaly, but said it is still not definitive. The hearing was held by two subcommittees of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Smith, the chairman of one of the subcommittees that held the hearing, read an article by Brazilian journalist Ana Carolina Caceres, who was born with the abnormality. Although doctors predicted she would not walk or talk, Caceres wrote that she has lived a fulfilling life, albeit one requiring numerous surgeries.
“We must work harder to prevent maternal infections and devise compassionate ways to ensure that any child born with disabilities from this or any other infection is welcomed, loved, and gets the care he or she needs,” Smith said.
Duncan, the chairman of the other subcommittee, led with a similar point. Calling the prospect that infected women would get abortions “heartbreaking,” Duncan said, “I believe every unborn child is made in the image of God.”
At one point, Smith asked Frieden if Obama’s budget request includes money to fund abortions. “I’m hoping none of the $1.8 billion has that agenda,” Smith said.
Frieden assured him it did not.
At the same time, both chairmen stressed the need to prevent further infection in the United States and abroad.
“Lack of knowledge and misinformation has stoked apprehension and fear among many,” said Smith.
In contrast, Democratic Representative Ami Bera, of California, said he hoped to increase access around the world to contraception.
“We have to make sure women have the ability to prevent pregnancy until we know what they are dealing with,” said Bera, a physician.
As the lawmakers questioned Frieden and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, one point became clear: The speed of vaccine development will depend on how large a pool of people get infected.
It might take five or more years, Fauci said, but if the outbreak continues unabated across the Americas, it could speed up the process to test a vaccine.
“You could conceivably have it at the end of 2017, which is really rocket speed for a vaccine,” Fauci said.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Dr. Anthony Fauci had suggested the speed of vaccine development for Zika will depend on the number of Americans who contract the virus.