Texas's Conservatism on Reproductive Rights May Make Fighting Zika Harder

Zika-carrying mosquitoes might still threaten Houston.
Zika-carrying mosquitoes might still threaten Houston.

Thanks to Texas's conservative stance on reproductive rights, women who contract Zika here might not be able to access the services needed to fight the disease's symptoms and spread, argues a new report released this month.

Texas – and particularly Houston – is likely to be hit with an outbreak of the Zika virus, which can cause birth defects in babies born by women infected with the virus as we've previously reported. Many southern states with poor reproductive health care systems will likely battle Zika outbreaks, said the report, which was written by the Population Institute, an international non-profit that aims to expand access to family planning resources.

However, Texas's especially dire track record on the issue makes the state “particularly vulnerable.”

“There are a lot of ways that our state's reproductive health safety net is, from our perspective, ill-prepared to handle any Zika outbreak in Texas,” said Alexa Garcia-Ditta, NARAL Pro-Choice Texas's communications and policy initiatives director. Not only are many women already struggling to access the services they'd need to prevent pregnancy if Zika broke out, she said, but because of the closure of many Texas abortion clinics under House Bill 2, some women who contract Zika may have no choice but to carry a pregnancy to term.

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Kevin Nix, senior director of communications for Legacy Community Health – a local clinic that has dealt with multiple Zika cases – said that, in Houston, the season for potentially Zika-bearing mosquitoes will likely last until the end of October.

Yet thanks to people traveling to Zika-infested regions, the virus will remain a year-round concern.

For Genevieve Cato, a board member at the Lilith Fund – a Texas non-profit that provides financial assistance directly to women seeking abortions – Zika needs to seen as a reproductive rights problem. “This is fundamentally a reproductive justice issue, because it has to do with pregnancy, the outcomes of pregnancy and the choices that people have when it comes to whether they're going to become pregnant,” Cato explained, “and if they do become pregnant, whether they're going to continue their pregnancy, because of the potential outcomes with Zika.”

“A lot of people have been talking about in those terms and mostly it's been government, like this in Texas, that have been resisting that conversation,” Cato said. She added, “I personally have found it almost maddening that we are seeing this potentially devastating possibility of a Zika outbreak at the same time that the state is doubling down on its willful inaction on expanding access to reproductive healthcare.”

In the Population Institute's 2015 Report on Reproductive Health and Rights, Texas was one of four states to receive an “F-,” the lowest possible grade. The minus sign signifies not only how bad the state's track record on reproductive rights is, but how unlikely it is to improve. Texas received low marks for its restrictions on abortion, decision not to expand Medicaid and lack of mandated sex education, among other things.

“Among the 50 states and the District of Columbia, Texas has the fifth highest rate of teenage pregnancy, [and] the highest rate of repeat teenage pregnancy,” the report reads, adding that the state's soaring rates of unintended pregnancy rank among the worst in the nation. Even Florida received a better letter grade.

The Population Institute report was released as Congress continues to battle it out over funding for the Zika virus. Democrats recently blocked a bill that would have provided funding to fight Zika due to the bill's exclusion of Planned Parenthood, according to The New York Times . Republicans did not want Planned Parenthood to receive funding for contraception aimed to curb Zika's spread, as the virus can be sexually transmitted.

Cato does believe that the staffers and representatives in the Capitol who have long been interested in promoting reproductive justice will bring up Zika as a reproductive rights issue, she said. But, “I don't have ton of hope that the people who are in leadership positions, especially our state leaders, will show any willingness to engage in this conversation whatsoever.”

Garcia-Ditta said that NARAL Pro-choice Texas has yet to plan its next round of policy goals, so she can't say yet if or how much of a role Zika will play in those goals.

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