With no chance of passing, women’s health bill exists for political theater

Wednesday , July 16, 2014 - 10:46 AM

Melinda Henneberger, the Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Remember the Democratic reaction to the GOP’s repeated attempts to repeal, run over or hollow out Obamacare in ways that were never going to succeed? “Maybe when you hit your 50th repeal vote you will win a prize,’’ President Barack Obama said mockingly. “We get it.’’

Well, get this: One man’s quixotica is another’s turn-out-the-vote strategy. Democrats, too, enjoy exercising their right to propose straight-to-campaign ad legislation that is in no imminent danger of becoming the law.

On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee debated just such a piece of campaign literature, known as the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would invalidate state laws that limit access to abortion. And will, Democrats hope, make single Democratic women mad enough to show up for November midterms they might otherwise sit out.

A number of young women who looked to fit that demo were waiting in line outside the packed Senate hearing room, although with all seats filled, it was unlikely they’d get in. Inside, abortion rights supporters in “Act for Women” T-shirts were offering color commentary in the form of sighs, eye rolls and vigorous head shakes, especially when Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., who was testifying before the committee, held up a 3D ultrasound of her grandson from which she said she learned “three months before he was born he had my eyes and nose.” At least the panel, chaired by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D- Conn., invited Blackburn and other opponents of abortion rights to share their views.

Each side freely borrowed language from the other: Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life Committee, accused her adversaries of not trusting women enough, in wanting “women shielded from any information that might cause her to change her mind.”

Wisconsin state Rep. Chris Taylor, a Democrat, sounded almost like a tea partyer when she testified that a new law mandating pre-abortion ultrasounds and other new requirements in her home state amounted to “government at its biggest and most intrusive.”

Each side repeatedly cited science and imaginatively arranged the facts. Nancy Northup, president of the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, called the laws that this one would roll back undemocratic, although they were, of course, passed by state legislatures, and many do reflect the opinion of the majority of Americans, who want abortion to be legal but also want it limited.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who rested his eyes through much of Taylor’s testimony, asserted that “the law that helped convict Kermit Gosnell would be wiped away” if the bill under consideration passed. That’s technically true; the Philadelphia doctor to the downtrodden was convicted of 21 counts of illegal late-term abortion and 211 counts of ignoring Pennsylvania’s 24-hour waiting period. But he was charged only after the death of a patient, and was convicted of involuntary manslaughter. And it was that case that uncovered evidence that he’d delivered and then snipped the spinal cords of babies so near to term that he used to joke that they were big enough to walk him to the bus stop. Murder would still be illegal, obviously, if the Women’s Health Protection Act were to pass, and Gosnell is serving a life sentence with no chance of parole as a result of his convictions in the killing of three children.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, succeeded in getting Willie Parker, who performs abortions in Mississippi, to say that if laws outlawing late-term abortion are such an affront to women’s rights and human rights, then Italy, France, Spain and Portugal must be big human rights offenders. Then Cruz proclaimed himself shocked that Parker felt that way, and left to vote.

For some reason, Rep. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, used some of her time asking the head of National Right to Life, “Do you believe Roe v. Wade should be overturned?”

“Yes,” Tobias answered. “I believe our children should be protected.”

With a Republican House, another Senate bill on the fast track to nowhere is the Protect Woman’s Health from Corporate Interference Act, which would overturn the Supreme Court’s recent Hobby Lobby decision on whether employers with religious objections have to provide insurance coverage for contraception.

The Not My Boss’s Business Act, its co-sponsors, Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Mark Udall, D-Colo., are calling it, although opponents argue that contraception became the boss’s business the minute he or she was required to provide it.

With Udall up for re-election this fall, why wouldn’t he stick with the same war-on-the-war-on-women theme that worked so well for Obama in ‘12 and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe in ‘13?

“My opponent, Cory Gardner, led a crusade that would make birth control illegal,’’ Udall says in one of his first TV ads. He’s referring to Gardner’s former support of the personhood amendment that could make some forms of birth control illegal. A second Udall ad says the issue “comes down to respect for women and our lives.”

Amid all the theater, it does seem true that the bill debated at Tuesday’s hearing would limit states in a novel way: It “would not regulate abortion,’’ said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, but “would regulate the states — tell them what laws they may or may not pass. It’s bad enough the Supreme Court sometimes attempts to do Congress’ job. But here’s Congress attempting to turn around and do the court’s job.”

Some would argue that Congress might consider doing its own job first — but in an election year, that job is on the campaign trail, and for Democrats, it’s again pitching hard to women.

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