As Zika Threat Looms, Texas Funnels Women's Health Money To Anti-Abortion Group

Critics say a $1.6 million grant should have gone to health facilities prepared to deal with Zika-related concerns.

A group that has promoted “alternatives to abortion” has secured a $1.6 million grant from the “Healthy Texas Women” program, the Texas Tribune reported Wednesday, the second largest award the program granted.

Women’s health groups would normally be alarmed that a group like this is getting public health funds, but they say it’s even more concerning as the United States faces the threat of the Zika virus.

The Heidi Group’s website doesn’t offer many details, but has described itself as “promoting life affirming hope and dignity to girls, women, and their families seeking self-sufficiency.” The Texas Health and Human Services Commission told the Texas Tribune that the group has “changed its focus” and “will now be providing women’s health and family planning services required by Healthy Texas Women, including birth control, STI screening and treatment, plus cancer screenings to women across Texas.” But pro-choice groups in the state say that those programs should be handled by providers who already know what they’re doing.

Texas’ ultra-strict abortion rules and cuts to family planning organizations like Planned Parenthood have shut down a number of women’s health clinics in the state. In June, the Supreme Court threw out some of those restrictions, deeming them unconstitutional. But the state has already seen an increase in births to mothers on Medicaid and a decrease in the number of women accessing long-acting birth control, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine earlier this year.

This is more concerning in the time of Zika, which has been found to cause birth defects in babies whose mothers were infected during pregnancy. Texas had its first Zika-related death this week, a baby born with microcephaly to a mother who had traveled to Latin America while pregnant. And as Reveal reported last week, Texas is dealing with an extreme shortage of doctors in general, and half the state has no obstetrician-gynecologists. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists preventing pregnancy as the primary means of reducing complications related to Zika in areas where the virus has spread.

While Texas does not have any documented cases of local transmission to date, the Department of State Health Services has said it is on “high alert” and expects that “local transmission here is likely at some point.” The only locally transmitted cases the CDC has reported are in Florida.

“Texas politicians devastated women’s access to birth control and other care, and shut down health centers across the state,” said Sarah Wheat, chief external affairs officer for Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas, in a statement. “The looming threat of Zika makes the need for this care more urgent than ever. Instead of helping women get the care they need at proven, qualified providers they know and trust, Texas is funneling hard-earned tax dollars in support of their anti-abortion agenda.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article said a New England Journal of Medicine study determined more women in Texas on Medicare having babies. In fact, the research found that more women in the state on Medicaid are.