Monday’s Senate vote to defund Planned Parenthood was a do-or-die moment for the Republican Party, and just another example of how the GOP has lost its way: continuing to flail with a series of dramatic gestures, rather than govern.
There was virtually no way that the vote to deprive Planned Parenthood of federal money – the vast majority of which goes to women who need cancer screenings, birth control, and routine gynecological care – would actually pass. The Senate needed 60 votes, and with no Democrats and a number of Republicans standing against the measure, the vote was seen as largely symbolic. Furthermore, President Obama said that he’d veto the bill, Democrats would filibuster if it came to a close call, and Republicans making good on their threat to shut down the government isn’t a outcome most Americans are eager to see.
The vote came on the heels of a series of undercover videos produced by an anti-abortion group — the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) — that ingratiated itself into the pro-choice community. The CMP says the videos prove that Planned Parenthood is illegally selling fetal tissue. Social conservatives and right-wing media predictably have run with the story, despite the fact that there has been no evidence to show that Planned Parenthood was doing anything against the law. Reporting on the CMP has revealed that it has ties to strident anti-choice activists, including people linked to the murder of Dr. George Tiller in 2009 and to a woman sent to prison for two years for plotting to bomb a women’s health clinic. The man behind the videos, David Daleiden, was mentored by a biomedical researcher who heads companies that are against using fetal tissue.
The videos have provoked not just public outcry but investigations and lawsuits, including several meant to block the release of any more videos that feature employees of organizations and companies that are involved in fetal tissue donation.
There was a time when fetal tissue from abortions was not allowed to be used for research. Both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were vehemently opposed to it and banned the practice during their administrations – but you know who wasn’t? Mitch McConnell. Yes, Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader and Kentucky Republican who is pushing for the repealing of federal funds to Planned Parenthood.
He didn’t just vote once for fetal tissue research. He voted for it four times.
Why did he change his mind? Twenty-five years ago, the battle of fetal tissue research, while heated, was hardly partisan; tons of Republicans were for it. In 1988, a panel of medical, religious, ethical, and legal experts concluded “that tissue from aborted fetuses, when it is available, is like other cadaver tissue that normally would be disposed of and can be used for research and possible treatments.”
The experts said that the issue was separate from abortion, and that there was no evidence to suggest that the practice would lead to more abortions. Fetal tissue taken from abortions is only used when women consent to the donation; even in the videos, Planned Parenthood doctors said that many women feel that the tissue donation is a positive side effect of the procedure and that they are happy to be doing something good.
But the bill before the Senate Monday, sponsored by Republican Joni Ernst of Iowa, isn’t even concerned with fetal tissue; it’s about Planned Parenthood as a whole and its mission of helping women with reproductive and sexual issues. It’s quite far reaching: it would ban Planned Parenthood from receiving Medicaid reimbursement for other health services it provides (a long and contentious process that would likely fail) and federal grant programs that have been providing services like HIV and sexually transmitted infection testing for 45 years.
Despite protestations that much of the mainstream media have a liberal bias, conservative ire, especially on radio and certain blogs, does get attention, especially from politicians. Abortion and family planning services, like birth control, is a perennial hot-button topic; just witness the furor after Rush Limbaugh railed against Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke for calling for contraceptive health care coverage.
Pragmatic Republicans (or Republicans who just want to steer clear of the crazies) from Jeb Bush to John Kasich, are caught between pandering to the people who have power and actually articulating their views about governing. Governance, as New York Times reporter Jackie Calmes outlines, often has to do with compromise, but hardline conservatives – as exemplified by McConnell in this particular fight – are loath to do so.
As Erick Erickson, a conservative writer, argues, Republicans should eschew compromise on the funding of Planned Parenthood because it’s a moral issue. It shouldn’t be seen as a political fight, but one of conscience: “People get into office because they perceive government is failing in some way and they want to make the country better or fix something. People do not get into politics because of politics, but because of their conscience, their morals, and their sense of justice. …There are some fights that are right even when the political calculus suggests otherwise. This is one of those fights.”
However, his argument – that Republicans should dig in their heels and fight, no matter how toxic and dubious their battle – might have more merit if the target of their crusade weren’t an organization that has helped millions of women look after their health and families.
The motion was blocked: 53 yeas and 46 nays.
Photo: U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) addresses reporters after the weekly Senate Republican caucus luncheon at the U.S. Capitol in Washington June 16, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst