At a congressional hearing about the Zika virus and its spread from the developing world, House GOP members spoke out against efforts to provide contraception and abortion access to women who have become infected by the viral strain known to cause severe birth defects. The $1.8 billion in emergency aid requested by President Obama may be derailed over fears that it will be used to provide abortions.
The Zika virus is transmitted from person to person by the Aedes aegypti mosquito and is understood to be linked to microcephaly when pregnant women contract the disease, a congenital abnormality which causes developmentally stunted children born with abnormally small heads. 21 countries have seen cases of the virus, many in South and Central America. 4,000 children born have been born with microcephaly in Brazil since the first confirmed case nine months ago.
In January the government of El Salvador, which does not allow legal access to abortions, advised women to avoid becoming pregnant until 2018 to prevent a public health epidemic. Other South American nations have issues similar advisories. Yet women still need increased access to contraception to prevent pregnancy and women who are already pregnant have few options.
Laura Bassett from the Huffington Post writes:
The problem in El Salvador’s case is that women who are already pregnant and contract the virus are still subject to the nation’s complete ban on abortion, which has already put dozens of women behind bars for murder. Health workers worry the law could drive many desperate women infected with Zika to seek dangerous, back-alley procedures.
“Imagine you’re pregnant already, and then you discover you have this virus, and then you discover that this virus causes this condition in the fetus,” said Anu Kumar, executive vice president of the global abortion rights non-profit IPAS. “Then you’re faced with the decision of, what do you want to do with this?”
Kumar, speaking at the International Conference on Family Planning in Bali, Indonesia, said the Zika situation highlights the public health problems that severely restrictive abortion laws cause. An estimated 47,000 women a year die from unsafe abortion complications.
While the U.S. is prohibited by law from providing financial or material assistance with abortions in foreign countries, Democrats urged a push for contraception aid in South and Central America. The GOP did not agree, however, and would not speak on the contraception issue, with Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC) urging the women of endemic countries to “welcome babies born with microcephaly” because they can “go on to lead very normal lives.”
“Each child is made in the image of God and has inherent worth,” he said.
Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) quoted the title of a BBC piece, “Microcephaly: ‘It’s not the end of the world,” indicating that the U.S. should wash its hands of responsibility for reproductive rights in affected nations and concentrate on stopping the spread of the mosquito-borne virus and care for the disabled children that result from it.
U.N. health officials have indicated we could expect as many as 4 million Zika infections in Latin America by the end of the year at the rate it is spreading. They have urged lawmakers in the Americas to lighten their restrictions on abortion. While some leaders have agreed it can be done in Brazil and Colombia, religious officials in these largely Catholic nations still hold the power to block changes in reproductive rights.