The bill was subject to heated debate all afternoon on the Senate floor. (Photo: Getty Images)
On Monday evening, a vote in the Senate blocked a bill introduced by Republican lawmakers that sought to end Title X funding for Planned Parenthood affiliate clinics nationwide. GOP leadership, and notably Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, who sponsored the bill, failed to get the 60 needed votes to pass it.
The measure ultimately garnered only 53 affirmative votes, with the remaining 46 senators voting against the measure.
Ernst had declared her intention to lead her party’s efforts to eliminate Planned Parenthood following a series of undercover “sting” videos released by the Center for Medical Progress, an antiabortion activist group. The Center for Medical Progress alleges that Planned Parenthood clinics are illegally selling, and profiting from, fetal tissue specimens resulting from abortions that are donated for scientific research by the women’s health care provider.
Fetal tissue donation and research is, in and of itself, legal and a long-standing component of biomedical research, and much of it government-funded. It is believed that the cure for diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s, and ALS may be found through research that makes use of fetal tissue and embryonic cell donation.
In the past week, restraining orders were filed against the Center for Medical Progress by both the National Abortion Foundation and StemExpress — a California-based company that acts as a “middleman,” collecting human blood, tissue products and stem cells from abortion providers, processing them, and then selling them to biomedical researchers — preventing the release of any new videos featuring unwitting employees of the respective organizations. State-level investigations into Planned Parenthood affiliate clinics in both Indiana and Massachusetts were also closed out last week, after finding Planned Parenthood free from any wrongdoing.
The bill was subject to heated debate all afternoon on the Senate floor, with Senators Patty Murray, D-Wash.; Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.; and Al Franken, D-Minn., emerging as leading voices in Democratic efforts to support the nonprofit women’s health care provider and the family planning services it makes available to women, and men, who might otherwise be unable to access contraception, cancer screenings, and testing for sexually transmitted diseases. Title X explicitly states that the funding it provides may not be used for abortion services.
What the Yes Voters Said
Sen. Joni Ernst is the public face behind the GOP effort in the Senate to defund Planned Parenthood in reaction to the controversial videos released over the past few weeks. (Photo: Getty Images)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Democrats should not protect Planned Parenthood’s federal funds “just to protect some political group,” an apparent reference to the organization’s one-sided campaign contributions to Democratic candidates.
Ernst said, “The American taxpayer should not be asked to fund an organization like Planned Parenthood that has shown a sheer disdain for human dignity and complete disregard for women and their babies.”
What the “No” Voters Said
“We’re voting on whether a young woman should be able to go to the provider she trusts to get birth control, whether cancer screenings should be more, or less, available to women across the country, and whether the United States Senate is going to turn back the clock on women’s health, Murray remarked on the Senate floor.
She pointed out that one in five women will visit a Planned Parenthood clinic in her lifetime and that 2.7 million Americans visited a Planned Parenthood clinic for health services in the past year — figures that seem to contradict Republican assertions that the Title X services Planned Parenthood provides could be easily made available through other providers. Planned Parenthood disproportionately provides care populations that are systemically medically underserved.
Similarly, Franken mentioned the 54,000 residents of his home state of Minnesota who receive health care services from Planned Parenthood, pointing out that in “Minnesota alone, Planned Parenthood provided more than 9,000 cervical cancer screenings and nearly 14,000 screenings for breast cancer in just one year,” and adding, “These screenings save lives.”
Franken added, “The bill’s lead sponsor [Ernst] has claimed that there “will be no reduction in overall federal funding available to support women’s health.” Another co-sponsor of this legislation claimed that the bill would “provide additional money for women’s primary health care services.” But the bill’s language makes no such commitment. It merely provides that “no federal funds may be made available to Planned Parenthood.”
Franken also called attention to the hypocrisy of Republicans claiming that there would be no reduction in federal funding for women’s health care services, given that the current GOP budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year calls for the complete elimination of Title X.
One Detractor Believes Planned Parenthood Should Remain Funded — But Ban Fetal Tissue Donation
Sen. Bob Casey, D-Penn., was one of the senators who voted against the bill, and yet, in a statement to Yahoo Health, he still expressed reservations about the organization’s involvement in fetal tissue donation, saying, “The individuals on the tapes should be held accountable for the callous and insensitive way these issues were discussed. If any individuals involved in fetal tissue donation at Planned Parenthood are determined to have violated the law, then they should be prosecuted. According to Planned Parenthood none of its facilities in Pennsylvania are engaged in fetal tissue donation, and I hope other chapters across the nation would discontinue the practice. I will continue to support Title X funding for family planning and contraception, including funds that go to Planned Parenthood, because these programs reduce unintended pregnancies and, as a result, reduce the number of abortions. Planned Parenthood facilities provide vital services, like cervical and breast cancer screenings and primary health care, to millions of low-income women, and it’s important that those services continue.”
There are currently only three states in which Planned Parenthood clinics supply donated fetal tissue specimens for medical research — California, Colorado, and Texas — and Planned Parenthood has called on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to provide a comprehensive review of the use of fetal tissue and practices. In 2014, the NIH funded approximately 150 projects involving the use of fetal tissue for research at some of the leading institutions and teaching hospitals across the country — including Harvard, Yale, Stanford, New York University, Brigham & Women’s Hospital/Massachusetts General Hospital, University of Washington, University of Michigan, and Johns Hopkins University.
What Did the GOP Know Beforehand?
Many on the left, and at Planned Parenthood itself, are also questioning the seemingly concerted coordination of the current attacks on Planned Parenthood from both the allegedly independent Center for Medical Progress and the Republican party. Earlier this month, Republican members of Congress admitted to having seen the Center for Medical Progress videos at least a month before their release — and waited at least a month to report any suspected illegal activity that allegedly occurred on the tapes.
An antiabortion rally in Washington last month. (Photo: Getty Images)
The failure of the Senate to pass the bill to defund Planned Parenthood — coupled with President Obama’s insistence that he would veto the bill should it manage to pass Congress — reveals the political motivations and machinations behind these attacks as Republicans head into their first candidate forum this evening to find a nominee among the slew of individuals seeking the party’s nomination for president in 2016. Each of these candidates has, incidentally, already declared on the campaign trail his or her intention to defund Planned Parenthood should they be elected to the country’s highest office.
Attacks on Reproductive Rights Are Historically Unpopular
And yet, continued attacks on reproductive rights and women’s health are deeply unpopular with the American public. When former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney — historically a very moderate Republican — made the issue a focal point of his campaign for president in 2011, female voters overwhelmingly turned out to re-elect President Barack Obama by 12 points, 56 to 44 percent.
Last week, polling released by Hart Research Associates on behalf of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund found that 64 percent of voters — and 72 percent of independents — did not agree with Congressional action to immediately end all government funding for Planned Parenthood. Furthermore, 58 percent of voters said they would support a candidate who favors continued funding for Planned Parenthood over one who wishes to defund the women’s health care provider, and 57 percent of voters said they are skeptical of Republican motivations behind the Congressional investigations of Planned Parenthood, believing they are being used to further a specific political agenda.
“It’s time the far right came to terms with political reality: Attacks on women’s health are deeply unpopular and put millions of lives at risk,” said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Federation of America, in a statement regarding Monday’s vote. “We know what happens when the out-of-touch extremists in Congress try to push their anti-woman agenda above everything else — the American people reject them.”
Overall, though, this issue is far from over. You can expect it to re-emerge this fall, with higher stakes — a potential government shutdown that could echo into next year’s presidential and congressional elections.
— with additional reporting by the Associated Press