The last time Republicans made a major push to defund Planned Parenthood, shortly before the 2012 election, Democrats successfully painted them as anti-woman. This time, taking on the still-popular organization sixteen months before another presidential election, Republicans are clearly trying to preempt such attacks.
In a press conference held by Senate Republicans leading the defunding effort Wednesday, the podium bore a sign reading, “Fund women’s health, not Planned Parenthood.” Two female senators elected since the first defunding attempt, Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst and Nebraska Sen. Deb Fischer, spoke first.
"Now Hillary Clinton is calling these Planned Parenthood images disturbing, and I agree."'
Though the votes likely don't exist in the Senate to strip Planned Parenthood of federal funding for women's health services, Republicans are acting at a time when the organization is vulnerable. For the past three weeks, an anti-abortion group has been releasing secretly recorded videos of Planned Parenthood executives casually discussing fetal tissue donation for medical research purposes. Planned Parenthood says the videos are misleadingly edited and that it has complied with the law.
On Wednesday, nearly every senator used the word "compassion" as they attacked Planned Parenthood. “What is especially shocking is the lack of compassion towards women and unborn children," said Fischer.
Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford said women who had consented to have their fetal tissue used for medical research would be horrified to learn "the child that was taken out of them was dismembered and sold for parts.” Planned Parenthood has said that all fees were reimbursements for processing costs.
Republicans got a rhetorical assist from Hillary Clinton, who in an interview published Wednesday described the videos as "disturbing" while reiterating her support for the organization. "Now Hillary Clinton is calling these Planned Parenthood images disturbing, and I agree,” said Ernst.
Under the Hyde Amendment, no federal funding can pay for abortions except in the case of rape, incest and life endangerment. That includes the funding Planned Parenthood gets for contraception, cervical cancer screenings, and well-woman exams. But Texas Sen. John Cornyn repeatedly invoked the Hyde Amendment in justifying the bill. "This legislation will bring Planned Parenthood in line with something that’s been the law since 1976," he said.
Cornyn also said that the funding itself would be redirected to community health centers, and that doing so would "actually increase women's access to primary care." He added, “Women who actually do have legitimate healthcare needs other than abortion are taken care of."
The example of Cornyn's home state may be instructive. According to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health by the Texas Policy Evaluation Project, that state's effort to strip Planned Parenthood affiliates of funding while cutting the overall pool of funding meant that "25% of publicly funded family planning clinics in Texas closed in 2011-2013, and the ones that remained opened served 54% of the clients that they had in the previous period." Many community health center lack capacity or specialization in women's health services. "Although CHCs present an effective option for increasing access to primary care for women under the ACA," a 2012 study in Women's Health Issues found, "they face significant challenges in expanding their capacity to meet the projected increase in demand for care."
The legality of medical research utilizing fetal tissue has divided Republicans in the past. Asked on Wednesday whether she supports such research, Sen. Ernst declined to answer, saying "That is a separate issue." She also said, "It's baby tissue. It is a baby." Sen. Mitch McConnell, who stood behind Ernst and did not speak at the press conference, voted in 1993 to legalize medical research on fetal tissue -- as did 38 other Republicans in the Senate and 59 in the House.
"It's baby tissue. It is a baby."'
Sen. Rand Paul, who also spoke Wednesday, went further than Ernst earlier this week, suggesting fetal tissue donation is a slippery slope to factory-grown babies being used for body parts.
"Really, we probably shouldn’t be doing research on these babies, because you would hate to think there is any kind of incentive for that to occur," he told The Washington Post on Monday. "Donating tissue when you die is an incredibly noble thing. I’ve worked with donated corneas to give people back vision. But this baby really didn’t have a choice. Some people are horrified by the idea of having factories where you’d grow babies for their body parts. Will technology allow that? Technology probably almost already does allow that. But should a civilized society allow that? I don’t think so."