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The Invisible Congress


For more than a year, women in Brazil have been confronted with the terrifying threat of the Zika Virus, which in that time has spread to 46 other countries and territories in the Americas, including the United States and Puerto Rico. This mosquito-borne and sexually transmitted infection poses a severe danger to those who are pregnant or may become pregnant, as it has been linked to a higher risk of miscarriage and may lead to Congenital Zika Virus Syndrome, the term used to refer to a number of birth defects, including microcephaly, caused by the virus.

On February 1, 2016, the World Health Organization declared the epidemic to be a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. In the days and weeks that followed governments throughout the region declared emergencies of their own or began to prepare for the possible spread of the virus to their countries. The United States was no exception with White House and top U.S. government health officials preparing a response and requesting $1.9 billion to implement it, but across Washington D.C. at the U.S. Capitol, Congress remained invisible.

Republican members of Congress minimized the urgency of the crisis, initially suggesting that appropriating new funds for the response could wait until the following year. When they did put forward a bill, the legislation was empty underneath its wrappings, providing only a portion of the funding requested by the President and limiting contraceptive access by preventing key providers, namely Profamilias clinics, the International Planned Parenthood Federation member association in Puerto Rico, from being able to receive emergency funds. These clinics are critical to providing sexual and reproductive health care and education, particularly for populations not being reached by other community health providers and hospitals, like young people. Ultimately, these delays and empty proposals were a dangerous disappearing act on the part of Congress.

After months of partisan wrangling on the Hill and continued warnings from federal health officials that money to fight the virus was running out, $1.1 billion in funding for the Zika crisis ultimately passed through both chambers of Congress at the end of September. This final agreement did not include the restrictions on Planned Parenthood clinics. However, the total amount provided for the response is still $800 million short of what the White House requested in February. It also fails to provide support for UNFPA, leading the multilateral reproductive health response in Zika-affected nations in Latin America and the Caribbean.

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