Attempts to Turn Back the Clock on Abortion While Time Runs Out for Zika Response

Time to End the Anti-Abortion Political Plays

While we are celebrating the U.S. Supreme Court’s affirmation of a woman’s constitutional right to abortion in the case of Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the recent battle in Congress over anti-abortion language inserted into a funding bill to address Zika virus illustrates that we still have much work to do.
Instead of focusing efforts on ensuring that the U.S. has the public health infrastructure necessary to address Zika virus, politicians seized the “must pass” bill as an opportunity to insert language undermining the legal right to abortion.  The U.S. Senate rejected by a vote of 52 to 48 a procedural motion to advance the bill containing dangerous anti-abortion language.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are 820 confirmed cases of Zika virus in the U.S. mainland, with 265 cases found in pregnant women.  The CDC also reports that those affected in the U.S. were infected by travel to Zika-affected areas or through sexual transmission from a partner infected overseas.  Men infected with Zika virus can sexually transmit the virus to their partners.  Pregnant women can spread Zika virus to the fetus during pregnancy or at the time of birth.  Zika virus is also spread through mosquito bites—and, with the onset of mosquito season in many southern states, individuals in the south are particularly vulnerable.  While the full health impacts of Zika virus are still being determined, researchers have found that it spreads microcephaly, a neurological condition resulting from incomplete brain development that can result in significantly small infant head size and other severe fetal brain defects.
The Supreme Court’s ruling in Whole Woman’s Health is a step in the right direction in recognizing women’s legal right to abortion, but substantial obstacles remain for women in underserved regions of the country where anti-abortion laws or bans undermine meaningful access to services.  Unfortunately, women who live in regions where access to reproductive health care, including contraception and abortion, is already severely limited—like in the South,—are among those at increased risk for infection.  But, states with policies that undermine women’s access to comprehensive reproductive health services, including abortion and contraception, make it more difficult for women these high-risk states to address Zika virus.  For example, women living in southern states are more likely to live in states that failed to expand Medicaid.  For lower-income women, this means limited access to reproductive health services needed to prevent or treat the virus.  For instance, in Florida where there are 223 reported cases of Zika virus, including 40 pregnant women, the state has failed to expand Medicaid and does not permit private insurance coverage of abortion. Yesterday, the Florida Department of Health announced the first confirmed case of microcephaly in an infant born in the state.
In addition to lack of access to reproductive health services, women in these regions are also confronted with limited access to information about Zika virus and how it is transmitted.  Many without health insurance or access to providers nearby are unable to consult with health providers to gain information needed to prevent transmission of the virus or treat it.  Additional funding for Zika virus from Congress would help women in vulnerable regions where state restrictions and anti-abortion legislation impede their access to critical services and information.  Back in February, the Obama Administration requested $1.9 billion to stem the outbreak, but that request went unheeded.

Rejecting Poison Pills and Political Plays


That is—until politicians saw the funding bill as another opportunity to play politics with women’s health and include language in the bill restricting access to abortion and defunding abortion clinics.  The measure advanced in the House of Representatives before its advancement was blocked by the Senate.  But, like the Supreme Court—no longer fooled by anti-abortion rhetoric guised as measures to “protect women’s health,”—the Senate rejected the thinly veiled effort to undermine women’s legal right to abortion.  Calling some the bill’s provisions “poison pills,” 52 senators echoed the sentiment of the Supreme Court’s ruling—you can no longer play politics with women’s health.
In fact, the bill’s “poisonous” rhetoric is part and parcel of a larger anti-abortion, anti-women political agenda being advanced in Congress and state legislatures, in which political posturing is taking precedence over the Constitution, medical evidence, and a woman’s legal right to make decisions about her health in consultation with her provider and her family.  In addition to undermining women’s legal right to abortion, the bill would also undermine our nation’s critical public health infrastructure by taking funds away from efforts to address Ebola, implement Obamacare, and run the Department of Health and Human Services.

Before Time Runs Out

Congress is running out of time.  Only a few short weeks remain after members return from the July 4th break to do the right thing and ensure that this country has the funds and support it needs to address Zika virus.  Those at risk of contracting Zika virus, and those who may have already been infected, do not have time to wait while politicians jeopardize women’s health to score political points or advance in re-election polls.
Congress must put public health before political agendas and provide necessary Zika virus response funding before time runs out.