Will it never end? Crucial emergency funding to fight the spread of the increasingly scary Zika virus, which causes birth defects in unborn babies, has gotten mired in the same tiring partisan fight over contraception and reproductive health that is on endless repeat in Washington.
Just before the Fourth of July break, a proposal to fund ongoing work to develop a Zika vaccine, control mosquitos and provide healthcare in the U.S. stalled in the House when Republicans inserted riders they knew their Democratic colleagues would never support. Specifically, they added a prohibition on Planned Parenthood receiving any funds to fight Zika, which is transmitted by mosquito bite or through sex with an infected person. A large part of what Planned Parenthood and its partners and affiliates do is to provide contraception.
The bill contains other unnecessary and objectionable provisions, including one to loosen restrictions on spraying environmentally threatening pesticides near water sources. Prospects for a compromise appear slim, as there's only one week left before Congress breaks for nearly two months. Without new funding, top health officials warn, vital preventive measures may have to be cut back.
The Senate did its part by compromising on a $1.1-billion funding package earlier this year. It wasn't as much as President Obama requested back in February, but public health experts said it was enough to continue the important work of developing a vaccine and diagnostic tools for the virus.
That's how compromises work. Is it too much to ask the House to do the same? Democrats have said they are willing to negotiate, but Republicans have not budged. They have to. This is a bad time to pick another fight over a familiar Republican bogeyman. They must find a proposal that everyone can agree on before Congress goes on recess next week.
Besides, there will be plenty of other opportunities for Republicans to attack Planned Parenthood for the sin of providing legal and important services they don't approve of. Meanwhile, the lives of real unborn babies — the group at greatest risk from Zika — are in danger. If a woman is exposed while pregnant, the fetus can contract microcephaly, a severely disabling and potentially lethal birth defect that stunts growth of the head and brain. So far, there are 1,130 reported cases of Zika infections in the continental U.S.; about 14 of them have been confirmed as having been sexually transmitted. Of those diagnosed, 320 are pregnant women. And so far there have been seven babies born with birth defects related to Zika, while five others had defects so severe they died in utero.
Those numbers may represent just a fraction of the actual cases. Experts estimate that 80% of people who are infected don't know it because the symptoms are mild or non-existent. If people don't think they are sick, they won't go to the doctor, refrain from having sex or put off pregnancy.
"The more we learn about Zika the more concerned we are," Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told reporters Thursday. The delay in funding, which was requested six months ago, has slowed down research and development of a vaccine, he said.
This makes the fight over Planned Parenthood more than just ideological. In the absence of a vaccine, the best defense is contraception. So attacking Planned Parenthood is not just unnecessarily provocative, it undercuts the best way to prevent Zika transmission and pregnancy among women of child-bearing age in areas rife with the virus.
Republicans argue that other clinics can provide the contraception services, so it doesn't have to be Planned Parenthood. But guess what? This week the House GOP also proposed eliminating funding for the Title X family planning program, which funds local contraception services in those other clinics. If the goal is to shut down legal abortion, this doesn't make sense. Title X does not fund abortion, but does help women and couples avoid unwanted pregnancy. The problem? Planned Parenthood, one of the main providers of contraception and family planning, receives funding from Title X.
Of course. It always seems to come back to Planned Parenthood. Congress must put that fight aside for another day. Today – this week – it's about preparing for the inevitable spread of Zika and limiting its harm to humans. It's unbelievable that this task would be up for debate.