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Senate Democrats Object to Contraception Limits in Blocking GOP Zika Agreement

Christine Grimaldi

“Republicans don’t want to treat Zika as an emergency and they don’t want to expand access to birth control," Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) said in a statement. "It begs the question: Will they be willing to pay the costs associated with every child born in this country with Zika-related birth defects?”

Democrats in the U.S. Senate Tuesday temporarily blocked a $1.1 billion GOP-engineered agreement to combat the Zika virus amid objections to the strings attached, including restrictions on contraceptive access.

Their Republican counterparts needed 60 votes to end debate and proceed to a vote on the measure. The 52-48 vote fell short of that threshold.

The Zika aid is part of a sweeping conference report (H. Rept. 114-640) that also provides fiscal year 2017 military construction and veterans affairs funding. The U.S. House of Representatives passed the conference report last week in a largely party-line vote with few Democrats on board. Prior to the vote, Democrats involved in negotiations had refused to sign off on the plan, which would limit contraceptive services in the United States and Puerto Rico and falls short of the Obama administration’s $1.9 billion request for emergency supplemental Zika funding.

As Rewire reported last week, the Republican agreement limits women to obtaining contraceptive services from public health departments, hospitals, and Medicaid Managed Care clinics. This could prove particularly challenging for women in Puerto Rico, a sprawling territory with few such options. Republicans would also prohibit subgrants to outside groups “that could provide important services to hard-to-reach populations, especially hard-to-reach populations of women that want to access contraceptive services,” according to a Democratic summary.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) took to the Senate floor to argue that the Republican agreement actually provides “more resources for women’s health services” through the three options.

“It’s really puzzling to hear Democrats claim to be advocates for women[’s] health measures when they are the ones trying to block the Zika legislation and its critical resources to protect women’s health,” McConnell said.

Senate Appropriations Committee Vice Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), however, criticized Republicans for effectively prohibiting contraceptive services between many women and their doctors or primary care clinics.

“I know the issue of birth control is difficult for some, but we know that Zika has terrible consequences for women and babies,” Mikulski said in a statement. “Republicans don’t want to treat Zika as an emergency and they don’t want to expand access to birth control. It begs the question: Will they be willing to pay the costs associated with every child born in this country with Zika-related birth defects?”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that Zika causes microcephaly, an incurable neurological disorder that impairs brain and skull growth in utero, as well as other severe fetal brain defects. Advocates have said the virus underscores the urgent need for better contraceptive access, particularly since Zika can be sexually transmitted.

Online requests for abortion medications have spiked in Latin American countries that issued warnings to pregnant people about Zika-related complications yet outlaw or restrict the health care, according to a recent New England Journal of Medicine study.

A White House spokesperson June 23 said that President Barack Obama would veto the funding package in its current form. McConnell will attempt to bring up the Republican agreement after the Senate returns from its July 4 recess, according to a leadership spokesperson.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and other party leaders in the chamber called for a new round of Zika talks.

“The conference report includes a restriction that would limit funding for providers of birth control services—a backdoor way of restricting care from women’s health providers like Planned Parenthood and family planning centers that would have serious consequences for women’s health,” they said in a letter to McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI).

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