Democrats in the U.S. Senate this week issued a warning to their Republican counterparts: Stop attacks on reproductive health-care access. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), however, may not think there’s anything to restrict.
“Access to contraception isn’t really an issue in America in 2016,” Antonia Ferrier, a McConnell spokesperson, said in an email to Rewire.
Ferrier said she had not read the Medium blog post rebuking Republicans for waging a “war on women” that escalated with their response to the Zika crisis. Although the virus can be sexually transmitted, Republicans sought contraception restrictions that Democrats have charged could disproportionately impact women in Puerto Rico.
Republicans’ plan would restrict women to obtaining contraceptive services from the limited number of public health departments, hospitals, and Medicaid Managed Care clinics in Puerto Rico, according to a Democratic summary Rewire obtained in June.
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Republicans would prohibit subgrants to outside groups, such as Profamilias, the Puerto Rico partner of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, “that could provide important services to hard-to-reach populations, especially hard-to-reach populations of women that want to access contraceptive services.”
As of August 24, the number of locally acquired Zika cases in Puerto Rico had risen to 8,746, compared with 29 in the continental United States, all in Florida, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control data.
Ferrier dismissed Democrats’ claims in response to questions about whether potential limits on contraceptive access in Puerto Rico have been a consideration, or if they might be going forward. She pointed to a Politifact analysis that found Democrats stretched the truth about the impact of contraceptive restrictions on Puerto Ricans.
“Sounds like the Ds need to get the facts straight. There is no prohibition on contraception funding,” she said. “Health care funds will flow to hospitals, public health agencies, community health centers, and doctors/providers that participate in Medicaid.”
Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Patty Murray (D-WA), the authors of the Medium post, ordered Republicans to stand down on “women’s health and rights” when Congress reconvenes September 6.
“We will fight back every day until you finally accept that we are not going to allow women to pay the price for your political games,” they said.
The Democrats’ warning attempts to head off more partisan funding fights in September.
The full U.S. Congress has yet to pass any appropriations bills funding various government agencies and programs. One of the stalled appropriations measures in the Senate includes Republicans’ $1.1 billion funding package, which contains the contraception restrictions and falls short of the Obama administration’s $1.9 billion request to combat Zika. Republicans leaders railroaded the same package through the U.S. House of Representatives in a largely party-line vote in June.
Members of Congress subsequently left Washington for a seven-week recess without reaching a Zika agreement. Democrats and Republicans traded blame in the press throughout the recess. Wyden and Murray reiterated their party’s accusations.
“Right now, the bipartisan bill to fund the fight against Zika has stalled because Republican leaders refuse to pass it without poison pill language targeting essential women’s health providers like Planned Parenthood,” they wrote in their post.
Ferrier indicated that the contraception restrictions are here to stay.
“It’s unfortunate that Democrats have not once but twice blocked common sense legislation that would have fund[ed] combatting Zika as well as for Veterans,” she said. “They’ll have another chance to change their minds.”
Lawmakers are facing a time crunch. The fiscal year ends September 30, increasing the likelihood of a continuing resolution (CR) to fund the U.S. government in the absence of viable appropriations bills.
A Murray spokesperson cautioned that even if GOP leaders want a smooth appropriations process or a clean CR, “they don’t always have full control over all of their members.”
“We know that there are members of their conference who are very focused on attacking women’s health care and who could be willing to make another run at it,” Eli Zupnick, the spokesperson, said in an interview. “So, this is a warning to them that Democrats haven’t forgotten and Democrats aren’t going to stand beside and let women get thrown under the bus.”
The head of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said this month that the Zika response “sits squarely with Congress” after the administration transferred a final $81 million toward vaccine development.