The president of NARAL Pro-Choice America has challenged the leading Republican presidential candidates to weigh in on the Zika virus emergency, calling on them to support access to universal contraception until scientists learn more about how the virus is spread.
In a letter addressed to Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and real estate mogul Donald Trump, NARAL president Ilyse Hogue wrote that they had “a responsibility to help advance a nationwide dialogue on how best to respond to this global health emergency.”
“This response must acknowledge that women across America—from both political parties—are rightfully concerned about the safety and advisability of becoming pregnant during a viral pandemic that has been linked to a rare and potentially deadly neurological disorder in infants,” said Hogue. “That is why I am asking you to put aside your ideological objections and support universal contraceptive coverage until we better understand the Zika virus and can control its outbreak.”
Zika, which is transmitted mainly through mosquito bites, produces zero to mild symptoms in most people. But when a pregnant woman is infected, the virus is suspected to lead to a serious birth defect called microcephaly, which causes a baby’s head and brain to be abnormally small. The condition is often fatal.
An outbreak of Zika was first detected in Brazil last May, and the virus has since spread to more than 20 countries in Latin America. On Monday, the World Health Organization declared the Zika virus an international public health emergency. Two days later, Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in four counties where people have been diagnosed: Miami-Dade, Hillsborough, Lee and Santa Rosa.
Complicating matters further this week, Dallas health officials said Tuesday that a local resident was infected with Zika by having sex with a person who had contracted the virus in Venezuela. In response, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidelines for people traveling to and from outbreak regions, including a recommendation that couples use “condoms consistently and correctly” or abstain from sexual activity.
"The science is not clear on how long the risk should be avoided," CDC officials said in a statement. "Research is now underway to answer this question as soon as possible. If you are trying to get pregnant, you may consider testing in discussion with your health care provider."
While Rubio, Cruz and Trump are all currently campaigning on an anti-abortion platform, they appear to be more open to contraception. In an interview last year with NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Rubio expressed support for readily available contraceptives, including the “morning after” pill. Cruz, meanwhile, assured voters at an Iowa town hall last month that conservatives weren’t trying to ban contraception.
“Last I checked, we don’t have a rubber shortage in America,” Cruz said.
The Texas senator has, however, supported a “personhood affirmation” that could ban certain types of contraception -- like the pill and intrauterine devices, or IUDs. And both Rubio and Cruz have voted to defund Planned Parenthood, which provides birth control to women, among other services -- including STD testing, gynecological exams and abortion.
In her letter, Hogue acknowledged she and the candidates “may have very serious disagreements about how to improve the lives of women and families more broadly.” But, she said, “The deadly reality of the Zika outbreak requires leaders to take bold action in the face of this public health crisis.”
Spokespeople for Rubio, Cruz and Trump did not return MSNBC’s request for comment as of this publication.
Despite its potentially fatal consequences for newborns, the Zika virus has yet to become a major political issue in the U.S., like the Ebola virus was a year ago. That’s partly because mosquito-borne outbreaks typically stay confined to the southernmost tips of the country, unable to overcome Americans’ widespread use of air conditioning and window screens. Zika is also not as deadly as Ebola, which is transmitted through direct contact with the bodily fluids of a person who is symptomatic.
Still, lawmakers have expressed concern, and the issue could creep into the 2016 election. Last week, Rubio wrote a letter to the commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection saying he was “alarmed” by the virus’ spread. He appears to be the only presidential candidate who has publicly addressed the issue.
The White House, for its part, is stressing preparedness. Last week, President Obama met with leaders of his health and national security teams to discuss steps to protect the American people from Zika. In a blog post Friday, Lisa O. Monaco, assistant to the president for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, wrote that the administration would “continue working on limiting the spread of the mosquito that transmits this virus and on a potential vaccine to ultimately stop the spread.”