On Tuesday, Uruguay’s House
of Representatives approved a bill that includes several measures to
ensure sexual and reproductive health, including legalizing abortion
up to the twelfth week of pregnancy. The bill, which Senate
approved in November 2007, now needs the President’s signature to
become law. However, President Tabaré Vasquez has said he will veto
the bill. With 63%
of the population
supporting decriminalization of abortion, abortion is likely to become
a political hot potato in the next few weeks.
Ratifying this vote would make
Uruguay the third Latin American country to nationally codify abortion
rights in a region that has moved towards making abortion safer in the
past decade. This trend is not unique to Latin America:
a recent study found that in a 22-year period, 36
countries have significantly liberalized their abortion laws. Upholding Tuesday’s House vote would send a strong message to governments
in Latin America, and throughout the world, that progress we’ve made
will be hard to unravel.
It would also send a message
to the people of Uruguay that a woman’s health is important to the
health of a country. While President Vasquez’s administration has
focused on the poorest and most vulnerable populations, it does not
seem concerned with the risks related to unsafe abortion. If the President
vetoes the bill, he will ignore the thousands of women who risk their
lives by resorting to illegal and clandestine procedures. Apart from
being unfair, a veto would contradict Vasquez’s commitment to solving
pressing social problems.
Equally important, a Vazquez
veto means a veto for democratic ideals. If most of the population,
the House of Representatives, and the Senate fully endorse the bill,
should the President be entitled to veto it? A life-long champion for
democracy, Mr. Vasquez now shows little respect for the voice of the
majority of the population and its representatives.
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Despite this gloomy scenario,
there is still hope. In Uruguay, a bill can only be vetoed if the President
and the Cabinet of Ministers agree, and we expect the Ministers to block
the veto. We are also hopeful that President Tabaré Vasquez will avoid
staining his respectable biography and approve the full text of the
sexual and reproductive health bill.
If this happens, Uruguay may
once again be a pioneer in the region.
Anti-choice legislators in Pennsylvania recently pulled out all the stops when debating a bill that would be one of the nation's harshest abortion laws if passed. But in the wake of a recent Supreme Court ruling, other state lawmakers are trying to stop that bill and change existing policy.
With the new U.S. Supreme Court abortion ruling, some Pennsylvania lawmakers want to roll back provisions similar to those struck down in Texas—and to head off any new restrictions in a bill debated on the house floor in late June.
Several legislators have called for repeal of Act 122, which was enacted in 2012 and mandates that Pennsylvania abortion clinics meet the standards of ambulatory surgical centers.
The U.S. Supreme Court struck down Texas’ ambulatory surgical center provision in the 5-3 Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt decision. Justice Stephen Breyer concluded in the opinion that the provision represented a “substantial obstacle in the path of women seeking a previability abortion” and was unconstitutional.
Soon after the decision, Sen. Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery/Delaware), a member of the bipartisan Women’s Health Caucus of the Pennsylvania legislature, wrote a memo recommending repeal of Act 122. And at a June 30 press conference organized by the caucus, Rep. Steven Santarsiero (D-Bucks) introduced legislation to do just that. He weighed in on another bill, HB 1948, discussed in the house on June 21.
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During that debate, “[anti-choice lawmakers] were exposed, they were unmasked,” Rep. Santarsiero said. “They stood one person after another after another in support of [HB 1948], and they came right out and said this is all about the anti-choice movement. They were exposed. They tried 20 years ago to claim it was not about that, but they’re not making any pretense at this point.”
Like Act 122, HB 1948 is an urgent matter. Anti-choice lawmaker Rep. Kathy Rapp (R-Warren) introduced the latter legislation in April, which would be one of the most severe laws in the country if enacted. HB 1948 would ban abortion beginning at 20 weeks. It also includes a “method ban” provision, which would criminalize dilation and evacuation (D and E), often used after miscarriages and for abortions earlier than 20 weeks.
Currently, HB 1948 is still on the schedule of the Pennsylvania Senate Judiciary committee. Though the senate may reconvene this summer, it’s unclear when or whether HB 1948 will move forward.
But advocates must not lose sight of this bill.
A ‘Dangerous Precedent’
HB 1948 inserts the legislature into the doctor-patient relationship, forcing medical professionals, ordinary Pennsylvanians, and even some legislators out of the process. In April, lawmakers twice rejected requests for input on HB 1948 from both medical professionals and the public. When Rep. Dan Frankel (D-Allegheny) spoke out against the bill, his microphone was reportedly cut off.
Struggling to be heard, doctors and relevant medical associations sent open letters and wrote op-eds against the bill. “We are highly concerned that the bill sets a dangerous precedent by legislating specific treatment protocols,” wrote Scott E. Shapiro, president of the Pennsylvania Medical Society, in an April letter sent to legislators.
They are right to be concerned. Around the country, lawmakers with no medical training frequently propose method bans to criminalize the safest, medically proven procedures. They then threaten to imprison doctors if they don’t provide less-than-optimal care for their patients. This kind of legislative coercion brings to mind Donald Trump’s March statement that women who seek abortion should suffer “some form of punishment” for having an abortion.
Punishment, indeed. Under HB 1948, the punishment can go one of two ways: Either women receive less-than-optimal care, or doctors must be incarcerated. While considering the potential fiscal impact of HB 1948, lawmakers discussed how much it would cost to imprison doctors: $35,000 a year, the annual expense to care for an inmate in Pennsylvania.
My colleagues here at the Women’s Law Project, who co-authored a brief cited by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt concurrence, have sent an open letter to senate leadership asking them to remove HB 1948 from further consideration.
The letter said:
If enacted, HB 1948 would inflict even greater harm on the health of Pennsylvania women than House Bill 2 would have inflicted on Texas women. Relevant medical experts such as the Pennsylvania section of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and the Pennsylvania Medical Society strongly oppose this bill.
Under well-established constitutional standards, HB 1948 is quite clearly unconstitutional.
The Strange Debate About HB 1948
For a while, HB 1948 seemed to have stalled—like much business in the legislature. It took more than 270 days to finalize the 2015 budget—an impasse that forced dozens of nonprofit organizations serving rape survivors, domestic violence victims, hungry children, and the elderly to lay off workers and turn away clients.
But in April, Pennsylvania lawmakers whisked HB 1948 to the floor within 24 hours.Then, on June 21, the bill suddenly sailed through the appropriations committee and was rushed to the house floor for third consideration.
HB 1948 passed the house after the kind of bizarre, cringe-worthy debate that makes “Pennsylvania House of Representatives” feel like an insult to the good people of the state. Surely, Pennsylvanians can represent themselves better than elected officials who want to punish abortion providers, liken abortions to leeches, ignore science, and compare abortion regulations to laws restricting pigeon shooting. Surely, they can do better than the legislators who hosted the June 21 farce of a debate about a bill designed to force women to carry unviable pregnancies to term.
At that debate, primary sponsor Rep. Rapp stood for questions about HB 1948. But when Rep. Leanne Krueger-Braneky (D-Delaware County) began the debate by asking Rapp about what doctors, if any, were consulted during the drafting of the bill, Speaker of the House Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny) halted proceedings to consider if such a question is permissible. Also a co-sponsor of the bill, he concluded it was not, offering the explanation that legislators can inquire about the content of the bill, but not its source or development.
Rapp eventually stated she had many meetings while drafting the bill, but refused to answer with whom. She invoked “legislator’s privilege” and insisted the meetings were “private.” Legislator’s privilege is an esoteric provision in the state constitution intended to protect the process from undue influence of lobbyists, not shield lobbyists from public inquiry.
The bill’s language—referring to D and E by the nonmedical term “dismemberment abortion”—echoes legislation promoted by the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC). The NRLC has also drafted boilerplate 20-week bans, along with Americans United for Life, an anti-choice organization and a leading architect of the incremental strategy for building barriers to access safe and legal reproductive health care.
Next, Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Montgomery) asked Rapp if similar bills have been deemed unconstitutional in other states.
Indeed, they have. According to Elizabeth Nash, senior state issues advocate at the Guttmacher Institute, similar D and E bans have been blocked in Oklahoma and Kansas, and 20-week bans have been struck down in Arizona and Idaho. HB 1948 is one of the first pieces of legislation to combine both provisions into one bill; at the Women’s Law Project, we call it a “double abortion ban.”
But no one in the chambers would know that these anti-abortion restrictions have been obstructed because, once again, Speaker Turzai halted the proceedings over these questions. This time, he stopped the debate citing the house rule that lawmakers cannot ask a question if they already know, or the speaker suspects they know, the answer.
In any case, so it went. Pro-choice lawmakers of the Women’s Health Caucus of the Pennsylvania Legislature spoke out against the bill, reading letters from physicians and sharing tragic stories of family members who died after being denied abortion care during severe pregnancy complications.
When Rep. Rapp was asked if she knew that many severe fetal abnormalities were not diagnosed until or after the 20th week of pregnancy, she responded that many were not diagnosed until birth, which misses the point: HB 1948 is designed to deprive women who receive a diagnosis of a severe fetal anomaly, even unviable pregnancy, at 20 weeks or later of safe and legal abortion.
That’s alright with Rapp and others pushing HB 1948; the bill contains no exemptions for fetal anomalies or pregnancies that were a result of rape.
The bill’s supporters didn’t refute allegations that if passed into law, it would negatively affect health care. They argued their case by invoking metaphors instead. They compared abortion regulations to laws about pigeon shoots. They compared fetuses to bald eagles and abortion to leeches. A white male legislator, a description unfortunately almost synonymous with “Pennsylvania legislator,” compared abortion to slavery, drawing the ire of Rep. Jordan Harris (D-Philadelphia).
“We use slavery references when it benefits, but won’t do anything about the systems that negatively affect their descendants,” tweeted Rep. Harris.
The house voted 132-65 in favor of the bill, mostly among party lines, though 25 Democrats voted for it and nine Republicans voted against it. Gov. Wolf has promised he will veto it if passes, while HB 1948 proponents are working to gather enough votes for an override if necessary.
Today's congressional inquiry not only derides fetal tissue research, but attacks abortion care. The inaugural hearing in March 2016 gave Republicans a platform to compare fetal tissue research to Nazi experimentation. Republicans derided Democrats for exaggerating the importance of fetal tissue.
Republicans in Congress sixteen years ago were more vested in supporting life-saving fetal tissue research than they were in mischaracterizing such research to score political points.
The times, and the talking points, have changed.
In 2000, GOP lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives conducted an investigation into fetal tissue practices based on a deceptive Life Dynamics video featuring a disgruntled former tissue procurement company employee. Dean Alberty alleged that two of his employers, Anatomic Gift Foundation (AGF) and Opening Lines, which acquired and distributed human fetal tissue to researchers, trafficked fetuses for profit. He also claimed that abortion providers altered procedures to obtain better tissue specimens.
Life Dynamics, which remains a prominent anti-choice group, paid Alberty thousands of dollars during and after the time he worked in the tissue procurement business. Republicans summoned Alberty to be their key witness, but he later admitted under oath that he had lied about business operations in the Life Dynamics video and in an interview with the then-prominent ABC television news program 20/20.
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“Your credibility, as far as this member is concerned, is shot,” said then-Rep. Richard Burr (R-NC), who now serves in the U.S. Senate.
Sixteen years later, credibility doesn’t seem to carry the same weight for anti-choice Republican lawmakers as a new set of videos alleging problems with fetal tissue donations have simultaneously been discredited but are still being used as the basis of hearings some have called a witch hunt.
Precedent doesn’t bode well for Republicans and their supposed whistleblowers.
Alberty, for example,expanded on his allegations of fetal tissue misconduct in the 20/20 interview with then-correspondent Chris Wallace, who now anchors Fox News Sunday. 20/20 separately targeted Opening Lines founder Dr. Miles Jones in an ostensibly damning undercover video included in the segment.
Alberty was unequivocal about wrongdoing. “This is purely for profit. Everything was about money,” he told Wallace.
Wallace, for his part, narrated that Alberty had accepted thousands of dollars to act as an informant for Life Dynamics while continuing to work in the tissue procurement business. Why believe Alberty, then?
“I will stand behind my words until I die,” Alberty said. “I will go in front of Congress if I have to and testify under oath.”
Alberty appeared before the subcommittee the morning after the 20/20 segment aired. By that time, he had changed his story in an affidavit and a deposition that Democrats referenced to undermine his claims.
“When I was under oath I told the truth,” Alberty admitted during the hearing. “Anything I said on the video when I’m not under oath, that is a different story.”
Clayton called for members of the panel to get Daleiden under oath to tell the truth or face legal repercussions for perpetuating his claims. However, Republicans misrepresented Clayton’s testimony by saying she called for StemExpress to turn over accounting records. Blackburn soon subpoenaed those records and threatened “to pursue all means necessary” as the investigation proceeds.
Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO), co-chair of the House Pro-Choice Caucus, has no doubts about why Republicans continue to rely on third-party witnesses rather than Daleiden.
“I don’t think they want to bring David Daleiden in because they know that he’s a shady character and an unreliable witness,” DeGette said in an interview with Rewire.
Anti-Choice Tactics Influence Current Inquiry
As the only lawmaker to serve on the past and present investigations, DeGette sometimes feels like she’s “in a real-life version of Groundhog Day.”
“We keep having these same kinds of hearings, over and over again,” DeGette said. “In my opinion, there’s continuing pressure on the Republican Party from the far-right anti-choice movement to have these hearings, even though the claim of sale of fetal tissue has been repeatedly disproved.”
Anti-choice tactics, if not the key players, behind what congressional Democrats have branded a “witch hunt” to undermine fetal tissue research are similar today.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the past and present inquiries is Republicans’ attitudes toward fetal tissue research—and their ability to separate research from abortion.
The shift can be summed up in one word: politics.
“I think the difference is a structural one with a political origin,” Raben, the former DOJ official, told Rewire in an interview.
Republicans in 2000 investigated fetal tissue practices as part of a standing subcommittee. House Republicans today created the select panel, sought members to serve on it, and despite the lack of any evidence, continue to fund it through tax dollars that otherwise would not be diverted to sustained attacks on fetal tissue research.
“In the face of lousy evidence, they’re going to keep going,” Raben said.
In 2000, even anti-choice Republicans repeatedly deferred to science on fetal tissue research.
“Today’s hearing is not about whether fetal tissue research is a good or bad thing, and it is definitely not about whether a woman should have a right to choose to have an abortion, which is the law of the land,” former Energy and Commerce Chair Tom Bliley (R-VA) said in 2000. “Whether we are pro life, pro choice, Republican, Democrat, or Independent, I think and hope that we can all agree that present federal law which allows for this research should be both respected and enforced.”
At that time, leading Republicans on the subcommittee also extolled, in the words of Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), the “life-saving research” that their investigation aimed to protect.
Upton’s approach today does not reflect what happened the last time an anti-choice group manipulated evidence and fed it to congressional Republicans. The contents of CMP’s heavily edited smear videos “can’t help but make you weep for the innocents who were sacrificed in such a cavalier manner for alleged profit,” Upton wrote in a op-ed published in the weeks after the release of the first CMP recording.
Although Upton does not serve on the panel, he effectively sanctions the investigation as chair of the full House Energy and Commerce Committee. Under House rules, standing subcommittees draw funding from the budget of the full committee with jurisdiction. The full committee chair is in charge of managing additional funds from the House Administration Committee, which sets aside $500,000 per session of Congress to supplement operating budgets, according to a senior House Democratic aide with knowledge of the chamber’s rules.
The aide said the panel follows the same procedures, receiving an undisclosed amount from Energy and Commerce and an additional $300,000 from Administration.
Administration Democrats unsuccessfully protested the transfer at the end of last year. “Spending taxpayer money on this select panel is wasteful on substantive grounds and unnecessary on practical grounds,” they said.
The transfer followed the House’s informal two-thirds/one-third funding split between the majority and minority parties, with the Republicans receiving $200,000 and the Democrats $100,000, the aide said. Full committee leaders are charged with distributing the funds, meaning that Upton had to do so with the $200,000 for Blackburn, the aide said.
Rewire contacted Upton’s office with questions ranging from whether the chair approves of the panel’s approach to how much more financial resources he will direct from the full committee’s budget to the panel. Rewire asked for Upton’s views on fetal tissue research, including if he shares Blackburn’s derision for the research and if he considers fetal tissue and “baby body parts” to be separate.
In response, a committee spokesperson emailed a brief statement. “The efforts of the Select Panel have always been based on learning the facts,” the spokesperson said. “The panel has been given a one-year term to conduct that mission, and will continue their important work. Chairman Upton has been a supporter of the panel’s charge and their efforts to protect the unborn.”
Republican Leaders Disregard Appeals to Disband Panel
Although Upton’s office told Rewire that the panel was given one year, the resolution that created the panel suggested it could go longer. The resolution only specifies that the panel will come to an end 30 days after filing a final report.