Imagine a virus for which there is no vaccine that can be sexually transmitted and lead to devastating birth defects. Imagine also that a powerful tool is available to combat it. You would expect — even demand — that policymakers immediately make that tool as widely available as possible.
That virus, the Zika virus, is here today. But Republicans in Congress are ignoring medical science by trying to restrict access to family planning, a proven form of protection from Zika’s harms, as part of their ongoing and dangerous crusade against women’s health care providers.
The Zika virus, transmitted by mosquitoes and by sex, is a global public health crisis. It puts the health of pregnant women and families in jeopardy. Medical science and common sense would dictate that family planning services like contraception that help prevent sexual transmission of the virus and prevent or delay pregnancy should play a central role in combating this epidemic. Yet Republicans in Congress are recycling age-old political attacks on birth control and Planned Parenthood to try to justify their indefensible position on Zika.
The scientific and public health communities speak with one loud and urgent voice: Zika poses its greatest threat to pregnant women and babies, and so family planning and maternal health care must be a central part of combatting the virus. It is the primary strategy recommended by the World Health Organization, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and many others.
Congressional Republican leaders want to cut off reproductive health care providers from receiving Zika emergency funds. They also want to go further — their goal is clearly to limit family planning access at every turn. The House Fiscal Year 2017 Labor, Health and Human Services bill would eliminate all funding for Title X, the nation’s family planning program. Title X provides essential services to 4.1 million people every year; Planned Parenthood centers provide preventive health care to 1.5 million of those women, men, and families.
Similarly, a House committee approved on Tuesday the Fiscal Year 2017 State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill, which imposes severe cuts to international family planning funding.
As Republicans in Congress have done before, this legislation puts politics before science and excludes critical reproductive health organizations that are uniquely suited to address the Zika crisis. Under the new legislation, qualified health care providers like ProFamilias in Puerto Rico, the first organization there to publicly discuss the connection between Zika and reproductive health, would not receive any funds to fight the epidemic simply because they are affiliated with the International Planned Parenthood Federation.
In a public health emergency, it is illogical and unethical to prevent the people and organizations who are best qualified to help, and who are already making a difference, from doing more.
Women in Latin America and the Caribbean face immense difficulty accessing reproductive and maternal health services. In this region, which is the hardest hit by the Zika virus, more than half of women who need pregnancy-related medical care do not receive it. An estimated 23 million women in the region have an unmet need for contraception.
In the US and Puerto Rico, women are fortunate to have Planned Parenthood, ProFamilias, and other organizations that strive to bridge this gap. But the weak Zika-response plan proposed by Republicans in Congress would endanger those who are most vulnerable to this epidemic — pregnant women and their developing babies. It blatantly disregards the facts from the public health community, and throws common sense out the window.
In the face of a public health emergency, in defiance of advice from countless health experts, and against the wishes of 65 percent of Americans who have called for the government response to Zika to include reproductive health care, Republicans in Congress still refuse to drop their dangerous crusade against women’s health care providers and instead adopt common sense to pursue an attainable solution.
At the end of this week, Congress will break for its summer vacation. Approximately 600 pregnant women in US states and territories have already been infected with the Zika virus, and many more are likely to get it before Congress returns to work on Sept. 6. Congress should act now to pass a bill that includes funding for expanded family planning services as part of the US response to the Zika outbreak.
We cannot afford congressional inaction. We cannot afford one more life altered irrevocably and senselessly by the preventable outcomes of the Zika virus. We need a real response that empowers women.
Congress must step up now to defend the women and families counting on them to address and prevent this public health crisis while there is still a window to do so. Republicans’ political games will mean loss and heartache to families in the US and around the globe.
Dawn Laguens is executive vice president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund.