Rep. Vern Buchanan, a Florida Republican, has called himself “pro-life” since he came to Congress a decade ago. This month, he’s proving it.
Buchanan last week announced his support for President Obama’s request for $1.9 billion to fight the Zika virus – partly because of “new research revealing that Zika eats away at the fetal brain and destroys the ability to think.”
He’s right. The mosquito-borne virus is going to cause thousands of babies in this hemisphere to be born with severe birth defects, and it is on the cusp of devastating the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico and spreading to the southern United States.
Yet Congress’ pro-life majorities have done nothing with Obama’s request, over three months after he made it. Republicans demanded the administration repurpose money that was supposed to have been spent fighting Ebola, and the administration did even though Ebola has resurged in Africa. Now, the congressional delay is hampering our ability to monitor the spread, to test possible victims and to prepare a vaccine.
In fairness, congressional lethargy isn’t limited to Zika. Only 150 bills have been signed into law this session – a fraction of historical totals – and 25 were ceremonial renamings of buildings and roads.
But with Zika, the delay will cause more fetuses to be deformed – and perhaps aborted – and a caucus supposedly devoted to protecting them is silent.
The few GOP officials who have called for action have close-to-home reasons. Gov. Rick Scott of Florida, where the risk of spread is high, is coming to Washington this week to urge Congress to act. Fellow Floridian, Sen. Marco Rubio, pleaded for action, too. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.) has also supported Zika spending; she’s pregnant with her second child.
On Monday, the National Governors Association, whose mostly Republican members will be on the hook when Zika arrives, urged Congress to act.
But there’s quiet from the anti-abortion lobby. Groups I checked with haven’t taken a position on the Zika response, other than a few that have said laws against abortion should not be loosened in Latin American countries because of the virus.
National Right to Life published an argument in March questioning whether Zika causes birth defects, citing a study that said only 1 percent of babies born to mothers with the infection have the brain condition called microcephaly.
But Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told the Washington Post editorial board Tuesday that “I can almost guarantee you” the rate of birth defects is above 1 percent; another study puts it as high as 29 percent.
Fauci said “it is very likely we’re going to see local outbreaks of Zika in the United States,” and Puerto Rico “is on the precipice of a really serious disaster.” Extrapolating from the chikungunya virus’ pattern, spread by the same mosquito, Fauci said 25 percent of Puerto Rico’s 3.55 million will contract Zika over the next year – including “a lot of pregnant women.”
And Ed McCabe, chief medical officer for the March of Dimes, told me Tuesday that Zika transmitted by local mosquitoes is on the “doorstep” of the mainland, too.
Will GOP congressional leaders listen? Democrats have proposed replacing the ad hoc responses to outbreaks with $5 billion a year for the moribund Public Health Emergency Fund. That won’t happen in this political environment.
But taking a sensible step to stop Zika’s spread? Let’s hear no more from so-called defenders of the unborn until they’ve done it.