There’s good news and bad news on the Zika front this week. Good news first: After months of stalling since the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention begged Congress for funding to halt a looming outbreak, Republicans have finally made a move to get money into the hands of public health professionals. In the wee hours of Thursday morning, House Republicans passed a bill almost straight down party lines allocating $1.1 billion to fighting the mosquito-borne Zika virus, which is rapidly spreading throughout Latin and Central America.*
Where to begin with the bad news? The funding bill is still $800 million short of the number the White House deemed necessary to mount an adequate defense against a Zika epidemic. The $1.1 billion the House did approve redirects $107 million from the budget used to fight Ebola, even though the deadly virus is still a threat to the U.S. And in a move that will thoroughly undercut the bill’s efficacy, Republicans devoted no resources to the distribution of contraceptives and condoms and stipulated that none of the Zika-prevention funding should go to Planned Parenthood or other family planning groups. Instead, the funding will go toward diagnostic efforts, mosquito control, and vaccine development.
Since Zika can be transmitted through sexual contact, condoms are an important tool in stopping the spread of the virus once mosquitos or travelers bring it to U.S. shores. Condoms and other forms of birth control are critical to the fight against Zika—the virus isn’t a grave threat to adults (it causes symptoms in only one out of every five people who contract it), but it causes miscarriages and birth defects, including microcephaly, in developing fetuses.
Brazil has seen a frightening spike in microcephaly rates as Zika has spread throughout the country. The prospect of a generation of children with underdeveloped brains has frightened the region so deeply, even countries that flat-out ban abortion are telling women not to have children for the next few years. Without a push for more birth control access and the cooperation of Planned Parenthood, which provides condoms and contraception to some of the country’s most underserved regions and populations, the U.S. risks subjecting its future children to the same fate.
“This puts women’s lives—and the lives of children they may wish to have—in danger,” said Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, in a statement. “House Republicans’ constant claim that they’re out to ‘protect the unborn’ falls flat when this bill undercuts the very protections women need to bear healthy children.”
The CDC has made contraception one of the pillars of its Zika response plan, since preventing unintended pregnancies will also prevent Zika-related birth defects. In one sense, the exclusion of contraception from the Republican plan to mitigate the effects of Zika on the U.S. demonstrates a willingness to put abstract politics ahead of life-saving facts. In another, it’s indicative of a troubling worldview that prioritizes birth-at-all-costs over planned, desired, healthy pregnancies. Earlier this year, Republicans in Congress said they’d basically leave Zika-infected women in the hands of God, recommending that families embrace Zika-related birth defects rather than consider abortion because children with microcephaly “go on to lead very normal lives.”
“Once again, Republicans have put political games ahead of the health and safety of the American people, particularly pregnant women and their babies,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said in a statement. The limited funding in the just-passed bill is economically shortsighted, too, since a single baby with microcephaly will cost taxpayers an estimated $10 million over his or her lifetime.
Zika will not affect all U.S. residents, or even all pregnant women, equally. Florida and Texas, where Zika will likely land first and have the most widespread impact, are two of the states least able to fend off the damage the virus could cause. That’s because the GOP leadership in those states has spent years weakening the infrastructure of reproductive health care that is necessary to stave off a crisis of birth defects. As in Latin America, the effect of Zika on the U.S. will vary across socioeconomic lines. Poor women will bear the highest risks of unplanned pregnancies and lifetimes of caring for children with debilitating birth defects—in addition to having reduced access to air conditioning, window screens, repellent, and other defenses against mosquitoes, they face social and economic barriers to birth control and reliable information about why and how to use it. When right-wing activists politicize a public health crisis and shut out Planned Parenthood, one of the best resources for pregnancy prevention, it’s poor women and their children who suffer most.
Correction, June 24, 2016: This post originally misstated that the bill allocates $1.1 million to fighting the Zika virus.