Washington – Sen. Richard Blumenthal touched off a passionate debate on Capitol Hill Tuesday with a hearing on the hot-button issue of abortion, arguing state legislatures have no right to promote laws that limit access to the procedure.
Blumenthal has sponsored a bill aimed at blocking anti-abortion advocates, currently stymied from pressing their case in Congress or the Supreme Court, from turning to state legislatures who since 2011 have approved 200 laws that the senator says makes it difficult, and sometimes impossible, for a woman to seek an abortion.
“These measures have nothing to do with protecting health,” Blumenthal said.
A hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday on Blumenthal’s “Women’s Health Protection Act” featured both supporters of his legislation and opponents like Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., who held up an ultrasound image of her unborn grandson.
“Even at three months [in the womb] you can tell he has my eyes,” Blackburn said.
Opponents of the legislation, like Blackburn, said the bill is extreme, removing existing protections and safety measures.
“The bill would attack conscience exemptions that have existed since the 1973 abortion decisions,” Blackburn testified. “It would bar laws that provide for periods of reflection and consideration before an abortion is chosen. It would even prevent a state from assuring that a physician is physically present when abortion drugs are given, or even that only a physician may perform a surgical abortion. It will make an abortion less safe.”
Rep. Diana Black, R-Tenn., said abortion causes mental health issues – and increased suicides – and increased risk for breast cancer, a notion most doctors have rejected.
Witness Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life Committee, criticized the bill for requiring doctors to treat abortion like any other medical procedure, without extended waiting periods, special tests or limits to an abortion provider’s ability to delegate tasks.
Tobias argued abortion should be treated differently from other medical procedures because “no other procedures involve the purposeful termination of a life.”
“This should be called ‘The Abortion without Limits Act,’” she said.
Supporters of the legislation, including Nancy Northrup, president of the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, said Blumenthal’s legislation is aimed at eliminating “underhanded laws” that masquerade as regulations to make abortions safer but are really just roadblocks to women seeking abortions.
“Where not blocked by court orders, this new wave of restrictions is shutting down clinics, closing off essential services, and harming women,” she said.
She cited laws passed in Texas that would result in the shutdown of nearly all abortion clinics in the state and a Mississippi law that restricting the provision of abortion to obstetrician and gynecologists with hospital admitting privileges that will close the only clinic left in that state.
Willy Parker, a doctor in Birmingham, Ala., who travels to Mississippi to perform abortion services, said the state also “mandates delays that are costly and burdensome.”
“A woman’s access shouldn’t be denied simply because she lives in Mississippi,” he said. “The care she receives should be determined by medical evidence, not by her Zip Code.”
While many of the witnesses who testified supported the legislation, Blumenthal was outgunned by Republican members of the Judiciary Committee, including Sens. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Mike Lee, R-Utah and Ted Cruz, R-Texas.
The Republican senators promoted rival legislation, “The Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act” sponsored by Graham, that would ban most abortions past 20 weeks of gestation on the argument an embryo is able to feel pain at that age.
No action likely
Neither Blumenthal’s legislation nor Graham’s – which has been approved in the GOP-controlled House – is likely to win Senate approval because each would need 60 votes to avoid filibuster and that level of support would be difficult for either bill.
“Even the least controversial measures have failed to get sixty votes,” Blumenthal said. “I’m hopeful, but I can’t predict that victory is around the corner.”
So the hearing served more as a forum for an election-year debate on a key women’s issue.
Democrats, like Blumenthal, hope the issue of reproductive rights help Democrats at the polls this year and say Republicans have launched a “war on women.”
Blumenthal has denounced the Supreme Court Hobby Lobby decision and sponsored legislation that would reverse it. The Supreme Court, in its Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores ruling, prevents the Affordable Care Act from forcing employers with moral objections from including birth control in their employee health plans.
In a blast e-mail aimed at collecting names and other information about women who object to the ruling, Blumenthal said “the Hobby Lobby decision is a devastating blow, but here’s the worst part: This won’t be the last attack from anti-women, right-wing extremists.”
“They will continue to do everything in their power to strip away a woman’s right to make her own healthcare decisions – unless we stop them now,” Blumenthal’s e-mail said.
Blumenthal has also written to the owners of Hobby Lobby, who brought the lawsuit against the ACA, demanding they provide birth control coverage to their employees in Connecticut because state law requires it.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Cruz also took a political swipe, calling Blumenthal’s legislation “a radical view from Democrats in the Senate that abortion should be universally available … and paid for by the taxpayer.”
“This is the very real meaning of a war on women,” Cruz said.