For most people in Texas, mosquitos are an irritating, but normal, sign of summer. With the Zika virus spreading quickly through South and Central America, existing restrictions to reproductive healthcare services and abortion care in Texas could result in a perfect storm for public health.
Because the Zika virus impairs the development of the fetal brain, it severely reduces life expectancy, with the majority of children born after infection dying in infancy. Should these children survive, the lasting impact of the fetal brain disruption sequence manifests in “long-term, severe developmental problems.”
So serious is the threat to pregnant people and their developing pregnancies, the spread of the disease has prompted governments with incredibly restricted access to reproductive healthcare to suggest that women abstain from any sexual activity for two years – until a vaccine can be made available.
The ridiculousness of that suggestion as public health policy aside, this is not just about “them.” It is also about us. The Zika virus is coming to the United States, and it is headed straight for Texas and other states along the Gulf Coast.
We know this, because the kind of mosquitoes that spread this virus exist in Texas. They breed in stagnant water, the kind that lingers in tires, gutters, and ditches after a rain – a scenario common in places like Houston’s fifth ward. And we are no better prepared to handle this public health crisis than the countries that are already facing growing numbers of infections.
Starting in 1976, the Hyde Amendment guaranteed that people who rely on the federal government for healthcare access would not receive insurance coverage for abortion services, with few exceptions. More recently, moves by Texas Republicans to defund Planned Parenthood, restrict abortion access, and fight back against Obamacare have created a web of restrictions that may leave parents facing fetal Zika infection between a rock and a hard place.
Then-Governor Perry’s removal of Planned Parenthood from the Women’s Health Program, and the resulting dissolution of the Women’s Health Program after the federal government pulled their funding due to the state’s discriminatory move against the provider, has resulted in a decrease in the numbers of women accessing reproductive healthcare services – including contraceptives and family planning. The Texas Women’s Health Program, created to take the place of the defunct WHP, has yet to reach similar levels of enrollment of it’s predecessor.
That same year, the legislature took a hatchet to funding for reproductive healthcare. Though subsequent legislative sessions sought to fill the gap, the actions of the 83rd legislative session created unstable access to preventative healthcare services – the impacts of which linger today.
Beyond these drastic shifts in access and funding for reproductive health services, Texas still refuses to expand medicaid access under the Affordable Care Act. Because of this, millions of Texans – many of whom are women of reproductive age – do not have access to preventative family planning services as guaranteed through the policy.
All of these obstacles exist alongside incredible restrictions to abortion care in our state. A pregnant person is likely to not discover the Zika infection until later in their pregnancy, at which point they will face the incredible list of hurdles placed in their way by Republican lawmakers hellbent on reducing access to abortion care in the name of women’s health.
While the twenty-week ban includes exceptions for fetal anomalies, it is unclear whether the Zika virus will fall under this definition. What’s more, the right to abortion after twenty weeks of pregnancy in the case of a fetal anomaly is a far cry from real access to timely, affordable abortion care.
Not only are clinics across the state experiencing wait times of up to five weeks due to a reduction in providers, but existing regulations of abortion providers make it incredibly risky for those clinics that can provide the service up to twenty weeks to do so.
Hospitals, which provide the other option for pregnant Texans facing the decision to terminate a pregnancy after twenty weeks, are also not a sure bet. Many are hesitant to stop a beating fetal heart, if not outright banned from doing so thanks to religious affiliations.
It is not a question of if Zika will infect people in Texas, but when. And with the next legislative session starting after mosquito season, any effort on the part of lawmakers to peel back these restrictions and head off a public health crisis may be too late.