Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Ranking Member, Senate Judiciary Committee, On Defunding Women’s Health Services and The Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act (H.R. 36)

We are about a week away from the deadline to keep the federal government open.  Our national highway system will soon run out of money.  The nominations of 16 consensus judicial nominees with bipartisan support are languishing on the Senate floor.  And there is still strong support in the Senate for passing meaningful immigration reform.  Those are just a few of the pressing issues that the Senate should have been working on this month.  Instead, Senate Republicans wasted two weeks on political show votes.  And with a government shutdown looming, Senate Republicans plan to use this week to continue their relentless attack on women’s healthcare. 

Republicans brought us to this brink just two years ago – and once again they are trying to use Americans’ access to healthcare as leverage in a fight over funding the Federal government.  This time, though, Republicans also seem intent on holding hostage the constitutional rights of women as part of this political exercise.  The American people – including women across this country – have had enough.    

It is incredible to me that in 2015 we are debating Federal funding for one of the Nation’s largest and most trusted providers of basic health care.  For nearly 100 years, Planned Parenthood has provided women’s health care, and has enjoyed the leadership and support of great Americans like the civil rights leader, Rosa Parks, who was a member of the organization’s Board of Advocates. 

Over 90 percent of the services Planned Parenthood provides are preventative – including annual health exams, cervical and breast cancer screenings, and HIV screenings for millions of American women, men, and young people.  It is these preventive services – and only these preventive services that are paid for with Federal funds. 

Yet, Republicans are focused on abortion services that are not paid for with Federal dollars and are otherwise only a very small part of what Planned Parenthood does.  Republicans say it is because of recently released videos that purport to show wrongdoing on the part of Planned Parenthood.  But these surreptitiously recorded videos were heavily edited in a misleading way, and generated by an organization formed with an agenda to end safe and legal abortion in our country.  

In reality, this partisan debate is nothing more than an opportunity for Senate Republicans to wage their personal opposition to a woman’s decision to access safe and legal abortions in this country.  They are entitled to their own beliefs.  But missing from these arguments are the stories of women across this country whose health and lives are at stake when politicians play doctor and tell women they cannot make their own health care decisions.  That is exactly the situation we face with the bill the Senate will vote on today, which puts women’s health at risk by imposing a nationwide ban on abortions at 20 weeks or more and criminalizing the doctors who care for them. 

The bill before us is as unconstitutional as it is extreme.  Federal courts have repeatedly struck down similar state 20-week bans as unconstitutional.  Just last year, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision permanently blocking Arizona’s 20 week-ban law.  The bill makes no exception where the health of the woman is at risk.  The exceptions it does include are severely limited.  It is only if a woman’s health has deteriorated to the point at which she might die is she allowed to have an abortion under the bill’s exception for a woman’s life. 

The bill’s so-called “rape exception” is in reality an overwhelming bureaucracy requiring survivors to jump through hoop after hoop such as filing police reports or going to mandatory counseling – we should not be forcing these survivors to re-live their trauma again and again before they can access abortion services.  Doctors providing safe abortion care who fail to comply with all of the bill’s requirements would face up to five years of jail time. 

Given these dangerous provisions, it is shocking that this bill has had no Committee process in the Senate.  There have been no Senate hearings on this bill.  There has been no debate in the Judiciary Committee.  We never had a chance to hear from women and doctors about the care this bill would criminalize.  So often last Congress, the current Majority Leader repeatedly urged the Senate to follow “regular order” on all legislation, and yet this House bill was brought straight to the floor.  This is not a political point; it is about what process in this body represents.  It gives Senators the opportunity to grapple with the real impact of legislation like this.  That is what was lost here.

In Vermont, I witnessed the devastating effect of restricting women’s access to safe and legal abortion.  When I was a young prosecutor in Vermont, I was called to a hospital to see a young woman who nearly died from hemorrhaging caused by a botched abortion.  She was unable to obtain a safe abortion in my state because it was illegal.  I prosecuted the man who had arranged for her unsafe and illegal abortion.    

After seeing the tragic impact that the lack of safe legal abortion care had on women and families in my state, I talked to doctors about challenging Vermont’s law.  In that case, Beecham v. Leahy, the Vermont Supreme Court called out the hypocrisy of a statute whose stated purpose was to protect women’s health, rightly asking, “Where is that concern for the health of the pregnant woman when she is denied the advice and assistance of her doctor?”  One year before Roe v. Wade, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that protecting women’s health required access to safe and legal abortion services – ensuring that women in our state would no longer be subjected to back alley abortions.  We should not forget that this history was once reality for so many women in our nation.

As we consider the bill before us today, we should also remember what Beecham v. Leahy and Roe made clear, and what should be crystal clear for all of us here today in 2015 – abortion is an extremely difficult and personal choice.  And if we truly want to reduce abortions, we should be making sure that family planning services are universally available, and support organizations like Planned Parenthood.

I oppose the bill pending before us and hope that Senators on both sides of the aisle will do the same.  It is time for the Senate majority to turn away from show votes and to start leading responsibly so that we can avoid yet another government shutdown.  

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