The GOP’s Zika Bill Could Actually Limit Access to Contraception and Abortion


zika virus

In the midst of the Democratic House sit-in Wednesday night protesting inaction on gun control, the GOP rushed to divert attention by passing a proposal to combat the spread of Zika — the mosquito-borne virus that’s causing concern in the public health community because it’s most harmful to pregnant women.

In the aftermath of the sit-in, which attracted national attention, GOP leaders have characterized the Zika bill as a more important priority than bringing gun control legislation to a vote.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said it was a “significant step” to battling Zika, and other Republicans have expressed similar support for the bill.

“Given the urgency of the Zika threat, I hope Senate Democrats will rise above politics so we can get this done,” Ryan said.

There’s just one catch: the bill doesn’t get to the heart of solving the problem for women who may be at risk for contracting Zika which has been linked to serious birth defects. The proposal allocates $1.1 billion primarily for mosquito control programs, vaccines, and diagnostics — with no funding for condoms nor contraceptives. To make matters even worse, the legislation also excludes funding of $50 million that would have gone toward maternal and child health and prevents Planned Parenthood from receiving any additional funding to provide birth control services.

While Republicans are touting the passage of the bill as a success, Democrats are furious, as the legislation represents a culmination of months tangling with Republican lawmakers over funding to combat the spreading virus.

Back in February, President Obama requested $1.9 billion to address the coming onslaught of the Zika virus in the U.S. and abroad. However, Republican lawmakers rejected the funding request, instead suggesting that the White House use leftover funding from the Ebola outbreak to fight the virus. The science community, which has been warning the U.S. about the oncoming threat of Zika, vehemently disagreed with the GOP’s suggestion, saying diverting funds from one health crisis to another undermines the global public health strategy.

In May, the House passed the Zika Vector Control Act as a potential solution to the Zika threat. However, the act threatened environmental protection, as it would allow users to spray pesticides into water without getting approval from the Environmental Protection Agency. That same month, the funding tug-of-war continued — the Senate advanced a $1.1 billion funding bill to fight Zika while the House proposed a measly $622 million.

The Zika outbreak began last year and has continued to spread rapidly, primarily impacting women in Brazil and throughout Latin America. While much of the focus on the virus has centered on Brazil, health care professionals and scientists have cautioned the U.S. government to brace itself for Zika to spread into the states — which saw its first case of a baby born with microcephaly, the condition caused by the virus, this month. Research from the Center of American Progress shows that as many as two million women could be impacted by the virus by summer and fall of this year, with states like Florida and Texas being some of the hardest hit.

In several Latin American countries — including Brazil, El Salvador, and Colombia — government officials have told women to avoid getting pregnant for months and even years to prevent the further spread of the Zika virus. But with 58 percent of pregnancies in Latin America being unintended, the suggestion to avoid pregnancy presents a frustrating conundrum for women, especially since these same countries make it incredibly difficult for women to access contraception and abortion. The high poverty rates in these countries are another barrier to contraception, as well as the fact that sex education is sorely lacking in many Latin American schools.

In response to this added difficulty, a new study now shows that more women in Zika-affected countries are turning to extralegal abortion methods. Research in the New England Journal of Medicine found that a record number of women in countries where abortion is heavily restricted are turning to the website Women on Web to request abortion pills. The largest increase in women seeking abortion pills from the nonprofit organization occurred in Zika-affected countries where government health advisories were issued, researchers found.

Ironically, the bill passed by the GOP shares striking similarities to the government health advisories in several Latin American countries — limit contraception and take the option for an abortion out of the picture. Women in Florida and Texas could be incredibly hurt by the funding allocations when compounded with the fact that these states have some of the harshest abortion laws in the country.

Speaker Ryan said the bill assures the administration will have the “additional resources” to combat the virus — but it’s unclear just how effective these resources will be, given that they don’t include what could be the some of the biggest preventative measures for women in the fight against Zika.


Reprinted with permission from Think Progress, a branch of The Center for American Progress