04.14.11

Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy On The Attack On Women's Health Care Services Offered Under Title X By Planned Parenthood

Last Friday night, in the absence of a budget deal, the federal government came within one hour of shutting its doors and all but emergency services.  The obstacle to an agreement at that point was not a matter of spending levels or budget cuts.  The obstacle was ideologically driven policy riders that some insisted on including in the budget bill.  Thankfully, in the end, we prevailed in stripping out the abhorrent rider to bar funding for Planned Parenthood.

A small but vocal minority is adamant about eliminating one specific organization’s health centers, which provide health care and family planning services for women nationwide.  Planned Parenthood centers receive federal funding from Title X of the Public Health Service Act -- the only federal grant program dedicated to offering people comprehensive family planning and related preventive health services.  President Nixon was instrumental in enacting this legislation, and it has been supported since then by lawmakers and presidents of both parties.  As many women can tell you, Title X was a remarkable breakthrough in women’s health care.

What a travesty it would have been to gut health services to women that literally have meant the difference between life or death, health or grave illness, to countless American women.  Vermonters were outspoken in their opposition to this rollback for women’s health, and I am proud of our state and grateful for our success in this round.

Tens of thousands of women in Vermont depend on Title X of the Public Health Service Act for life-saving preventive treatments and care.  Around the country, there are many providers of Title X services, but in Vermont, Planned Parenthood centers are the only clinics where many lower income women can go for family planning care.  Planned Parenthood centers in Vermont offer women and teens annual health exams, cervical and breast cancer screenings, and HIV screenings and counseling.  Last year in Vermont, Planned Parenthood provided critical primary and preventive services to nearly 21,000 patients.

In the last few weeks more than 6,000 Vermonters have contacted me about their support for the funds that make Title X health services possible, and for Planned Parenthood’s long and commendable record of making Title X’s promise a reality for millions of American women, in Vermont and across the nation.  I have heard from nurses and doctors in Vermont urging me to support funding for Planned Parenthood in order to continue essential care these centers offer to their own patients and to women who would not receive primary health care were it not for Planned Parenthood.

Despite the misleading and blatantly false statements of some ideologically driven advocates, more than 90 percent of the care Planned Parenthood health centers offer is preventive.  In fact, six of every ten women who use Planned Parenthood for Title X services describe it as their primary source of medical care.  And despite what some opponents of women’s health funding have proclaimed, absolutely no Title X funding can be used for abortion services.  The sad irony is that defunding Title X and Planned Parenthood would result in more unintended pregnancies, and probably more abortions. 

This drive to defund women’s health services offered by a particular organization also raises constitutional concerns.  Article I, Section 9, paragraph 3 of our Constitution expressly forbids passage of any “bill of attainder.”  According to the late former Chief Justice of the United States, William Rehnquist, “A bill of attainder was a legislative act that singled out one or more persons and imposed punishment on them, without benefit of trial.  Such actions were regarded as odious by the Framers of the Constitution because it was the traditional role of a court, judging an individual case, to impose punishment.”  Yet those promoting the anti-Planned Parenthood rider clearly intend to single out one organization by name to ‘punish’ it, ‘punishing’ as well the millions of women who Planned Parenthood serves.

Proponents of this rider have cited what they call “evidence” that Planned Parenthood has acted unlawfully.  Other supporters of this virulent effort charge that the organization has been “accused” of a variety of things.  These comments make clear that their legislative intent is to punish for these unverified accusations.  Some in fact have gone so far as to accuse Planned Parenthood of violating the law that prohibits any federal funds to be used to provide abortions. 

There is no substantive reason to believe such accusations.  If there is any violation of this or any federal law, it is the role of the Executive Branch to prosecute and try the offenders.  That is not the role of this body, though that is what some are advocating, through their injection of accusations and partisan politics into this debate.

The Framers’ original intent was to prohibit bills that single out one entity for punishment, because that is not Congress’s role in the separation of powers they so carefully devised for our Republic.  

Aside from the serious constitutional issues with the pending measure is one naked fact from which proponents of this legislative rider cannot hide: Nothing in this pernicious rider would actually reduce spending.  Their proposal would save not one penny.  This is about ‘punishment,’ not fiscal responsibility. 

Does this Congress care more about what looks good on a bumper sticker or what matters in the daily lives of real people?  The arrogance and shortsighted attitude of a minority has put at risk the lives and health of millions of women.  My wife Marcelle is a cancer survivor.  We were lucky.  We had good health care and a salary that allowed us to pay the bills when she got sick.  Other people are not so lucky.  Without the services that Planned Parenthood provides, thousands of low-income women in Vermont would lose their ability to have regular cancer screenings that could save their lives too.  That we are even considering the elimination of these health services to America’s women is shameful.  That it was the sticking point that nearly forced the shutdown of the federal government is a disgrace.  

Title X was a true breakthrough for the health of American women.  Should we as a nation walk back from the remarkable progress we have made in women’s health?  Of course not.  The mean-spirited and ideological attacks must end, and these ideological assaults on women’s health care must end. 

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