Congress’ late and weak response to Zika
© Greg Nash

This week, Krissy – who is 15 weeks pregnant and lives in Wynwood, the Zika-hot-zone of Miami – will be getting the results of a Zika test. Whatever the outcome, our country’s leaders have already failed her, along with millions of other women and men of reproductive age living in the U.S. and the U.S. territories. As of today, there are now 23,135 cases of Zika in U.S. states and territories, including 2,097 pregnant women.

Until last week, Congress had appropriated exactly zero dollars in emergency funding to support Zika prevention, public education, and reproductive health services, leaving women to bear the burden. “My whole life takes place within the epicenter of the Zika crisis,” says Krissy. “It has added another layer of stress on top of an already challenging pregnancy.”

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In the U.S., a woman spends five years of her life pregnant, post-partum, or trying to become pregnant, and three decades trying to avoid an unintended pregnancy, according to the Guttmacher Institute. All women and men need access to family planning and reproductive health care information and services in order to choose if and when to parent. While this is true in any circumstance, it becomes even more critical in the context of Zika.

After eight months and three failed attempts to pass President Obama’s emergency funding request to combat Zika, conservative lawmakers seem to have relented in the fight to ban funding to a Planned Parenthood affiliate in Puerto Rico, where Zika cases are highest. A continuing resolution finally passed by the House and Senate last week – just days before a Sept. 30 deadline – includes $1.1 billion for Zika – far short of the President’s requested $1.9 billion.

To understand Congress’ late and feeble response to Zika, you don’t need to be an expert on mosquito-borne viruses, infectious diseases, or vector control. All you need to be familiar with is our country’s longstanding fight to control women’s bodies. 

Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe. V. Wade decision affirming a women’s constitutional right to abortion in 1973, ideological conservatives have attempted, with disturbing success, to chip away at women’s access to abortion. The last five years has seen an unprecedented intensification of efforts to undermine women’s reproductive rights.

This has taken shape through a range of strategies including defunding Planned Parenthood, cutting funding for the federal Title X family planning program, banning public funding of abortion at the federal and state level, selectively excluding Planned Parenthood from Medicaid reimbursement, prohibiting health coverage even in private insurance markets, and closing local women’s health centers under the pretense of protecting women’s safety. Not to mention harassment, vandalism, and straight-out violence at women’s health clinics.

The result of this conservative crusade against abortion has been the decimation at every level of our country’s basic public health system of women’s health and family planning services - especially for low-income women and women of color.

Enter a mosquito with Zika, and we become acutely aware of how our leadership has failed us – especially low-income women and women of color living in Southern states. Those states, where pregnant women are most at risk of acquiring the virus, are the states most hostile to women’s reproductive rights. They are also the states with the highest rates of uninsured women due to states’ failure to expand Medicaid and with the highest rates of unintended pregnancy.

The Zika virus is the first-ever mosquito-borne and sexually transmitted virus with the potential to cause severe birth defects in children. This fact alone should compel our nation’s leaders to take immediate and responsible action. However, history has shown time and again that when women’s health is involved, politicians would rather engage in an ideological battle than enable solutions.

As we watch our country’s leaders confront the Zika epidemic, we must insist that our politicians stop politicizing women’s health and address Zika for the public health crisis that it is, not the latest opportunity to control women’s bodies. 

Ellen Liu is Director of Women’s Health, Ms. Foundation for Women.


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.