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In the face of a looming global public health crisis from the Zika virus, Congressional Republicans have not only failed to lead, they have proposed policies that would do more harm than good. This month, the Senate attempted unsuccessfully to jam through a Zika response bill that underfunds the response needed and disqualifies the family planning providers uniquely suited to care for the most at-risk populations. Now, they have proposed a budget bill in the House that would eliminate funding for family planning services for over 4 million people. With less than a week left in session, Congress should stop attacking women’s health - the very services needed to address this crisis - and work to achieve consensus on legislation that rightly includes family planning services in our strategy to combat the Zika virus.

Public Health Experts Have Spoken:

The public health community has spoken with one voice: family planning --- including birth control, condoms, and education --- must be part of combating Zika. Family planning is the primary strategy recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to reduce Zika-related pregnancy complications. 

  • The World Health Organization Director General has said, "the response now requires a unique and integrated strategy that places support for women and girls of child-bearing age at its core."
  • The president of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) said plainly: “Immediate efforts to improve access to contraception and prevent pregnancy will help us to avoid the long-term effects associated with the Zika virus.”
  • ACOG continued: “The Zika virus outbreak is a stark reminder that birth control is essential preventive medicine, and is one of our most effective weapons in our war on Zika.  Congress should treat Zika like the emergency it is and swiftly enact a bill, free from tradeoffs and offsets.” 
  • Peter Shin, MPH, a public health professor at George Washington University said: “When they’re taking money away from Planned Parenthood, they’re basically taking it away from young, high-risk women.”

Zika virus can be sexually transmitted and can especially harm pregnant women, making reproductive health providers all the more central to the response. Zika can cause microcephaly and other severe brain problems. It is also associated with impaired fetal growth, hearing loss in infants and other complications for pregnant women, including miscarriage.

But the bill that Congressional Republicans tried to jam through makes unnecessary and harmful changes to important federal programs that provide family planning. The legislation also excludes qualified providers, like ProFamilias in Puerto Rico, simply because of their affiliation with the International Planned Parenthood Federation.

ProFamilias is an important provider of sexual and reproductive health care in Puerto Rico and reaches populations that others do not. ProFamilias has two clinics in San Juan, both of which offer gynecological services, HIV testing and counseling, and sexual health counseling. One of these clinics is funded by the Title X program, the U.S’s only dedicated federal source of family planning, for low-income and uninsured women. In addition, ProFamilias provides sexual health services and education in community centers in other areas of the island. They have launched an education campaign specifically around the Zika virus and was the first organization on Puerto Rico to publicly discuss the connection between Zika and sexual and reproductive health.

  • In 2015, ProFamilias provided 146,691 services.
  • Almost half of services were provided to individuals under age 25, reflecting the organization’s focus on adolescents and young adults. 
  • The total number of contraceptive services in 2015 was 88,536, or 60 percent of total services the network provides

But if Congressional Republicans had their way, this important community-based health care provider would be excluded from emergency funds to fight Zika – that’s the last thing we should be doing in a public health emergency.

Americans Agree Zika Response Needs to Include Family Planning:

Americans agree that this is not the time for politics. A new poll released last week from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that the majority of Americans are following the outbreak of Zika closely and most also want reproductive health care to be part of the solution.

In May, Senator Patty Murray of Washington state led a bipartisan compromise that passed the Senate.  Unlike the current bill that recently failed, this bill did not limit the types of providers who could assist during a public health crisis. Republicans actively added new, unnecessary restrictions to a traditional funding mechanism, the Social Services Block Grant,  that would restrict family planning providers, like Planned Parenthood,  who are uniquely suited to help in this crisis, from receiving additional funds.

A continued assault on family planning:

When faced with a dangerous virus that can be sexually transmitted and cause significant fetal abnormalities, it should be common sense to invest in more family planning, not less. But instead, anti-women’s health politicians in the House are continuing their reckless crusade against Planned Parenthood’s patients.  

The House Fiscal Year 2017 Labor Health and Human Services bill eliminates funding for the Title X program, which serves 4.1 million individuals every year. Planned Parenthood health centers provide preventive care to approximately 1.5 million people served by the Title X family planning program, — roughly a third of the people served by the program. ProFamilias is also a recipient of Title X funding.

The House FY 2017 State and Foreign Operations bill, expected to be voted on in Committee next week, also includes severe cuts to international family planning programs and bans a U.S. contribution to UNFPA, the leading agency working to address the reproductive health needs of women in Zika-affected countries.

Time and again we have seen the same playbook from the anti-women’s health members in Congress who have prioritized eliminating funding for family planning. Congressional efforts to limit the ability of family planning providers to help women who need it most is reminiscent of attacks on Planned Parenthood in the U.S.

We need our leaders to deal in good faith when it comes to addressing public health crises, and we need them to heed the guidance of public health experts who have said repeatedly that we cannot combat this virus without family planning services. Congress needs to come together quickly to pass legislation to address the looming threat of the Zika virus.