Republican leaders in both the House and Senate have been reported to be in a state of some panic trying to figure out how to avoid a government shutdown over the issue of defunding Planned Parenthood. The issue arises by reason of the need to pass a spending bill by the end of September in order to continue government operations. Both John Boehner and Mitch McConnell have learned the lessons of the past: that government shutdowns accomplish nothing except to damage the reputation of the Republican Party. Inexplicably,Senat but not surprisingly, those lessons have escaped the most prominent architect of the current plan to cause a shutdown, Senator Ted Cruz aka “Senator Shutdown.”
For our part, we oppose shutdowns as a legislative maneuver. Period. To be sure, Cruz and his ilk always attempt to describe a shutdown so as to place the responsibility with the President, but the public is not fooled, nor should it be. As Mitch McConnell recently acknowledged, “We’ve been down this path before. This is a tactic that’s been tried going back to the ’90s, frequently by Republican majorities that always have the same ending: that the focus is on the fact that the government is shut down, not on what the underlying issue that is being protested is.” In short, a shutdown is a bad idea irrespective of one’s position concerning Planned Parenthood. Beyond that, however, we think that, taken on its own merits, an attempt to defund Planned Parenthood is also a bad idea.
Starting with the most fundamental issue, abortion, it may be appropriate to summarize our own perspective. We understand and respect the view of “pro-life” advocates: that a life begins at conception and is fully entitled to protection, morally and legally. Nevertheless, we reject their claim that such a view should be allowed to override, supersede or erode the protection of women’s rights defined by the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Moreover, we view the issue as one of personal conscience and we are saddened that both parties have approached it in a highly partisan manner.
Because Planned Parenthood is the leading provider of abortions, funding for it has long been a target of some Congressional Republicans. Although the law prohibits the use of federal funds to support abortions, such funds have long been applied to support other women’s health services provided by Planned Parenthood. Planned Parenthood’s claim that abortions represent only 3% of its services may be misleading because, as explained in The Washington Post, that calculation counts a $1,500 abortion the same as a $45 pill. On the other hand, there is no question that Planned Parenthood does provide a wide range of services other than abortions that are important to women’s health. These include Pap tests and breast examinations, birth control services and testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases. (Governor Bush’s recent assertion that Planned Parenthood should not be given any federal funding because it is not “actually doing women’s health issues” is as inexplicable as it was erroneous.) Nevertheless, critics of Planned Parenthood argue that funding applied to support other services offered by Planned Parenthood gives indirect support to abortions.
In our view, efforts to defund Planned Parenthood are misguided, and while they have been successful in a few states, they have never found a majority in Congress. Recently, however, they appeared to gain considerable traction as a result of several controversial videos. The videos, now widely publicized, recorded surreptitiously a number of conversations between Planned Parenthood representatives and anti-abortion activists posing as would-be purchasers of fetal tissue.
The videos do not establish any illegal activity on the part of Planned Parenthood. The relevant statute provides that:
It shall be unlawful for any person to knowingly acquire, receive, or otherwise transfer any human fetal tissue for valuable consideration if the transfer affects interstate commerce.
The term “valuable consideration,” as defined in the statute, “does not include reasonable payments associated with the transportation, implantation, processing, preservation, quality control, or storage of human fetal tissue.”
Planned Parenthood has insisted that it has never transferred fetal tissue for a profit, and while an independent audit might be helpful in confirming that fact, there is to date no credible evidence to the contrary. (For a detailed analysis, see Factcheck.org, “Unspinning the Planned Parenthood Video.” There is also no evidence whatever that any abortions provided by Planned Parenthood have ever been performed for the purpose of obtaining fetal tissue, violation of another statutory prohibition.
The real problem created by the videos is not evidence of any illegal activity but the fact that the discussion of fetal body parts (not merely “tissue”) is sufficiently graphic and insensitive to cause discomfort among even staunch supporters of abortion rights. In that light, it is not unreasonable to expect Congressional investigation, and as we noted in a prior blog, Senator Susan Collins and Senator Mark Kirk urged just that as an alternative to defunding (a proposal endorsed by Republican Majority for Choice). There are legitimate issues that Congress might explore. For example, in an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal on August 25, “Closing the Planned Parenthood Loophole,” Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a former FDA Deputy Commissioner, contended that Planned Parenthood might be observing the letter of the law but violating its spirit, and he proposed strengthening the language of the federal law in various respects. Still, we have seen no evidence—and Dr. Gottlieb offered none–that Planned Parenthood has violated even the spirit of the law. Similarly, we do not believe that the statutory modifications urged by Dr. Gottlieb are necessary. Nevertheless Gottlieb’s concerns are reasonable subjects for examination by Congress.
Indeed, Congress could decide to ban use of fetal tissue for research entirely. We would not support such an extreme measure, but it would at least inflict no harm on the women served by Planned Parenthood. In contrast, attempting to defund Planned Parenthood, makes little sense, whatever one’s views of abortion, or the harvesting of fetal organs, may be. While it has been urged that other community agencies could be funded to provide the services now offered by Planned Parenthood, the fact is that in many communities there are too few agencies equipped to take up the slack and serious consequences would ensue. As Dana Milbank argued persuasively in The Washington Post, in July 31 column entitled “Senate Republicans accidentally promote abortion:”
The federal funds Senate Republicans propose taking away from Planned Parenthood are used largely to provide women with birth control. And because there simply isn’t a network of health-care providers capable of taking over this job if Planned Parenthood were denied funding, this means hundreds of thousands of women, if not millions, would over time lose access to birth control. Take away women’s contraceptives, and a greater number of unintended pregnancies — and abortions — would inevitably result.
Planned Parenthood no doubt bears some responsibility for the predicament in which it finds itself. While the organization could not have specifically anticipated a surreptitious video, Milbank noted that “There’s no excuse for callous talk about how the group is ‘very good’ at performing abortions so that fetal hearts, lungs and livers can be kept intact and sold.” Moreover, Planned Parenthood was slow to respond effectively to the allegations made against it. Not until August 27, several weeks after release of the first video, did the organization provide a detailed statement in the form of a letter to Congressional leaders.
The Planned Parenthood letter made several points: 1) fetal tissue research had been approved by a bi-partisan vote in Congress following the recommendations of a Blue Ribbon panel and recognizing the importance of fetal tissue research; 2) Planned Parenthood carefully followed federal law to assure that it did not profit from disposition of fetal tissue or influence abortions in order to provide such disposition; 3) preserving fetal tissue for research has been involved in only a “miniscule” portion of Planned Parenthood’s abortions; and 4) the videos had been deceptively edited. On the whole, we found Planned Parenthood’s letter to be cogent and persuasive. We are certain, however, that it will not make the attacks go away and that Planned Parenthood will find it necessary to continue its defense not only before Congressional leaders but in the court of public opinion.
It is clear, at least in hindsight, that Planned Parenthood should have had in place detailed procedures governing the handling of fetal tissue to assure that the practices of its affiliates unfailingly met both the letter and the spirit of the federal law and did so in appearance as well as fact. In its letter to Congressional leaders, Planned Parenthood advised that:
I have asked our senior medical leadership to conduct a review of the policies and practices that guide the affiliates that offer tissue donation services and our oversight of these activities. If this review identifies ways we can improve our practices while staying true to our core mission, we will promptly implement them.
Such a review, however would have had more credibility if carried out by an independent body. Similarly,while we accept Planned Parenthood’s argument as to the importance of using fetal tissue in research, the point would be made more effectively if supported by current statements from its partners in the medical community.
We expect that, in the end, Planned Parenthood is likely to be vindicated in its claims of having done nothing illegal or improper, The real fight, of course, is not at all about fetal tissue and how it is used, but about abortion and the desire to strike out against Planned Parenthood because it is a provider of abortions. As we have shown, however, it is not in the interest of either women, or even the opponents of abortion, to punish Planned Parenthood by diminishing its ability to deliver the birth control and other health care services. On the contrary, doing so would represent a triumph of ideology over reason, a result that we regret is too often the result sought by some members of our party.
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Every sulfurous belch from the molten interior of the volcanic Trump phenomenon injures the chances of a Republican presidency. After Donald Trump finishes plastering a snarling face on conservatism, any Republican nominee will face a dauntingly steep climb to reach even the paltry numbers that doomed Mitt Romney.
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