While witnesses on both sides of the issue claimed to be in favor of protecting women’s health, anti-choice witnesses relied heavily on debunked science and distorted interpretations of the bill to make many of their claims.
A woman’s access to safe reproductive health care “shouldn’t depend on her ZIP code,” multiple witnesses said during a Senate committee hearing Tuesday on the Women’s Health Protection Act (WHPA), which would invalidate numerous state restrictions on abortion. While witnesses on both sides of the issue claimed to be in favor of protecting women’s health, anti-choice witnesses relied heavily on debunked science and distorted interpretations of the bill to make many of their claims.
The WHPA, sponsored by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), is a response to a wave of hundreds of state laws restricting abortion that have passed in the last several years. Anti-choice supporters of these kinds of bills claim they merely protect women’s health by regulating abortion, but the effect of laws like these has been to close numerous safe clinics, force women to make extra trips to the doctor or undergo medically unnecessary procedures, and otherwise impede access to safe, legal abortion care.
Blumenthal called such laws a “pernicious charade” during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. His bill would ban a list of specific types of anti-choice laws, as well as laws similar to those listed if they single out abortion providers. It specifically excludes parental notification laws, insurance coverage restrictions, and any laws involving clinic violence.
Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, recalled linking arms with fellow citizens 25 years ago to keep Operation Rescue protesters from blocking the doors to an abortion clinic—the kind of physical obstruction later prevented by the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act. But now, she said, the blockade is legislative: “Today, women’s access to abortion services is being blocked through an avalanche of pretextual laws designed to accomplish by the pen what could not be accomplished through brute force—the closure of facilities providing essential reproductive health care to the women of this country.”
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Northup noted that major respected medical groups, including the American Medical Association and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, endorse the WHPA.
The committee also heard from Dr. Willie Parker, a doctor at Mississippi’s last remaining abortion clinic which is under threat of closure. Mississippi’s TRAP (targeted regulation of abortion providers) law requires abortion providers to have admitting privileges with a local hospital, but Parker has been denied them, despite previously having had admitting privileges in Chicago. He testified that many hospitals declined even to evaluate his application; it’s common for hospitals to deny admitting privileges for abortion doctors for political or PR reasons. Admitting privileges are “irrelevant,” Parker said, because patients will be admitted to the nearest hospital regardless in the event of an emergency.
Parker said he continues working in Mississippi because he feels a moral calling to do so. “Some people ask if I am concerned for my own safety,” he said. “Of course I am. But I am less concerned for my safety than for what will happen to women if I am not there to provide the care they need and deserve.”
Anti-choice OB-GYN Monique Chireau claimed that admitting privileges are denied for reasons of competence, not politics. She also cited several widely-discredited studies on the alleged dangers of abortion, including one about mental health problems resulting from abortion that was found to have serious flaws, and one with likely-inflated claims of complications from abortion in Finland that is not supported by other studies on complications.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) questioned Northup relentlessly, often talking over her, about whether the law would affect so-called “conscience clauses” (it’s not intended to and doesn’t mention them) and whether she could name any state that would be able to keep its waiting period laws if the WHPA passed. Northup didn’t mention a specific state in the hearing, but said that waiting periods could stand if they didn’t last too long.
Amy Friedrich-Karnik, federal policy advisor at the Center for Reproductive Rights, clarified to Rewire that as long as a waiting period law did not require an extra, medically unnecessary visit to a doctor’s office or a crisis pregnancy center, it would likely stand. Many states, for instance, have 24-hour waiting periods that only require a phone counseling session before the appointment, which reduces the burden on working women who can’t afford to take multiple days off of work or child care.
National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) President Carol Tobias invoked the horrific case of Dr. Kermit Gosnell to suggest that abortion needs to be more strictly regulated. But NRLC’s state legislative director recently admitted in a speech that abortion carries fewer risks than childbirth, and pro-choice advocates argue that restricting access to safe abortion risks creating more Gosnells.
Tobias also called the WHPA the “Abortion Without Limits Until Birth Act,” mischaracterizing both the bill’s intent and its contents. Certain restrictions could remain in place, and states would still be able to restrict abortion after fetal viability, as long as there are exceptions for rape, incest, and the life or health of the pregnant woman. That’s the standard set by the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade, and that’s the standard the bill’s supporters want to see the states return to in a uniform way.
“Basically this law enforces the Constitution,” Blumenthal said.
The current draft of the 2016 Democratic Party platform contains some of the most progressive positions that the party has taken in decades. But there is a critical issue—one that affects millions in the United States—that is missing entirely from the draft: fixing our broken and discriminatory welfare system.
While the Republican Party has adopted one of the most regressive, punitive, and bigoted platforms in recent memory, the Democratic Party seems to be moving decisively in the opposite direction. The current draft of the 2016 Democratic Party platform contains some of the most progressive positions that the party has taken in decades. It calls for a federal minimum wage of $15; a full repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal Medicaid funding for abortion care; and a federal nondiscrimination policy to protect the rights of LGBTQ people.
All three of these are in direct response to the work of grassroots activists and coalitions that have been shifting the conversation and pushing the party to the left.
But there is a critical issue—one that affects millions in the United States—that is missing entirely from the party platform draft: fixing our broken and discriminatory welfare system.
It’s been 20 years since President Bill Clinton proudly declared that “we are ending welfare as we know it” when he signed into law a sweeping overhaul of the U.S. welfare system. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996 implemented dramatic changes to welfare payments and eligibility, putting in place the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. In the two decades since its enactment, TANF has not only proved to be blatantly discriminatory, but it has done lasting damage.
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In one fell swoop, TANF ended the federal guarantee of support to low-income single mothers that existed under the now-defunct Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program. AFDC had become markedly unpopular and an easy target by the time President Clinton signed welfare reform legislation into law, with the racist, mythic trope of the “welfare queen” becoming pervasive in the years leading up to AFDC’s demise.
Ronald Reagan popularized this phrase while running for president in 1976 and it caught fire, churning up public resentment against AFDC and welfare recipients, particularly Black women, who were painted as lazy and mooching off the government. This trope underwrote much of conservative opposition to AFDC; among other things, House Republican’s 1994 “Contract with America,” co-authored by Newt Gingrich, demanded an end to AFDC and vilified teen mothers and low-income mothers with multiple children.
TANF radically restructured qualifications for welfare assistance, required that recipients sustain a job in order to receive benefits, and ultimately eliminated the role of the federal state in assisting poor citizens. The promise of AFDC and welfare assistance more broadly, including SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps) benefits, is that the federal government has an inherent role of caring for and providing for its most vulnerable citizens. With the implementation of TANF, that promise was deliberately broken.
At the time of its passage, Republicans and many Democrats, including President Bill Clinton, touted TANF as a means of motivating those receiving assistance to lift themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps, meaning they would now have to work while receiving benefits. But the idea that those in poverty can escape poverty simply by working harder and longer evades the fact that poverty is cyclical and systemic. Yet, that is what TANF did: It put the onus for ending poverty on the individual, rather than dealing with the structural issues that perpetuate the state of being in poverty.
TANF also eliminated any federal standard of assistance, leaving it up to individual states to determine not only the amount of financial aid that they provide, but what further restrictions state lawmakers wish to place on recipients. Not only that, but the federal TANF program instituted a strict, lifetime limit of five years for families to receive aid and a two-year consecutive limit, which only allows an individual to receive two years of consecutive aid at a time. If after five total years they still require assistance to care for their family and themself, no matter their circumstances, they are simply out of luck.
That alone is an egregious violation of our inalienable constitutional rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Still, TANF went a step further: It also allowed states to institute more pernicious, discriminatory policies. In order to receive public assistance benefits through TANF, low-income single mothers are subjected to intense personal scrutiny, sexual and reproductive policing, and punitive retribution that does not exist for public assistance recipients in programs like Social Security and Supplemental Security Income disability programs, programs that Democrats not only continue to support, but use as a rallying cry. And yet, few if any Democrats are crying out for a more just welfare system.
There are so many aspects of TANF that should motivate progressives, but perhaps none more than the family cap and forced paternity identification policies.
Welfare benefits through the TANF program are most usually determined by individual states based on household size, and family caps allow a state to deny welfare recipients’ additional financial assistance after the birth of another child. At least 19 states currently have family cap laws on the books, which in some cases allow the state to deny additional assistance to recipients who give birth to another child.
Ultimately, this means that if a woman on welfare becomes pregnant, she is essentially left with deciding between terminating her pregnancy or potentially losing her welfare benefits, depending on which state she lives in. This is not a free and valid choice, but is a forced state intervention into the private reproductive practices of the women on welfare that should appall and enrage progressive Democrats.
TANF’s “paternafare,” or forced paternity identification policy, is just as egregious. Single mothers receiving TANF benefits are forced to identify the father of their children so that the state may contact and demand financial payment from them. This differs from nonwelfare child support payments, in which the father provides assistance directly to the single mother of his child; this policy forces the fathers of low-income single women on welfare to give their money directly to the state rather than the mother of their child. For instance, Indiana requires TANF recipients to cooperate with their local county prosecutor’s child support program to establish paternity. Some states, like Utah, lack an exemption for survivors of domestic violence as well as children born of rape and incest, as Anna Marie Smith notes in her seminal work Welfare Reform and Sexual Regulation. This means that survivors of domestic violence may be forced to identify and maintain a relationship with their abusers, simply because they are enrolled in TANF.
The reproductive and sexual policing of women enrolled in TANF is a deeply discriminatory and unconstitutional intrusion. And what’s also disconcerting is that the program has failed those enrolled in it.
TANF was created to keep single mothers from remaining on welfare rolls for an indeterminate amount of time, but also with the express goal of ensuring that these young women end up in the labor force. It was touted by President Bill Clinton and congressional Republicans as a realistic, work-based solution that could lift single mothers up out of poverty and provide opportunities for prosperity. In reality, it’s been a failure, with anywhere from 42 to 74 percent of those who exited the program remaining poor.
As Jordan Weissmann detailed over at Slate, while the number of women on welfare decreased significantly since 1996, TANF left in its wake a new reality: “As the rolls shrank, a new generation of so-called disconnected mothers emerged: single parents who weren’t working, in school, or receiving welfare to support themselves or their children. According to [the Urban Institute’s Pamela] Loprest, the number of these women rose from 800,000 in 1996 to 1.2 million in 2008.” Weissmann also noted that researchers have found an uptick in “deep or extreme poverty” since TANF went into effect.
Instead of a system that enables low-income single mothers a chance to escape the cycle of poverty, what we have is a racist system that denies aid to those who need it most, many of whom are people of color who have been and remain systemically impoverished.
The Democratic Party platform draft has an entire plank focused on how to “Raise Incomes and Restore Economic Security for the Middle Class,” but what about those in poverty? What about the discriminatory and broken welfare system we have in place that ensures not only that low-income single mothers feel stigmatized and demoralized, but that they lack the supportive structure to even get to the middle class at all? While the Democratic Party is developing strategies and potential policies to support the middle class, it is neglecting those who are in need the most, and who are suffering the most as a result of President Bill Clinton’s signature legislation.
While the national party has not budged on welfare reform since President Bill Clinton signed the landmark legislation in 1996, there has been some state-based movement. Just this month, New Jersey lawmakers, led by Democrats, passed a repeal of the state’s family cap law, which was ultimately vetoed by Republican Gov. Chris Christie. California was more successful, though: The state recently repealed its Maximum Family Grant rule, which barred individuals on welfare from receiving additional aid when they had more children.
It’s time for the national Democratic Party to do the same. For starters, the 2016 platform should include a specific provision calling for an end to family cap laws and forced paternity identification. If the Democratic Party is going to be the party of reproductive freedom—demonstrated by its call to repeal both the federal Hyde and Helms amendments—that must include women who receive welfare assistance. But the Democrats should go even further: They must embrace and advance a comprehensive overhaul of our welfare system, reinstating the federal guarantee of financial support. The state-based patchwork welfare system must be replaced with a federal welfare assistance program, one that provides educational incentives as well as a base living wage.
Even President Bill Clinton and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton both acknowledge that the original welfare reform bill had serious issues. Today, this bill and its discriminatory legacy remain a progressive thorn in the side of the Democratic Party—but it doesn’t have to be. It’s time for the party to admit that welfare reform was a failure, and a discriminatory one at that. It’s time to move from punishment and stigma to support and dignity for low-income single mothers and for all people living in poverty. It’s time to end TANF.
The Clinton campaign announced Friday that Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) has been selected to join Hillary Clinton’s ticket as her vice presidential candidate.
“I’m thrilled to announce my running mate, @TimKaine, a man who’s devoted his life to fighting for others,” said Clinton in a tweet.
“.@TimKaine is a relentless optimist who believes no problem is unsolvable if you put in the work to solve it,” she added.
The prospect of Kaine’s selection has been criticized by some progressives due to his stances on issues including abortion as well as bank and trade regulation.
Kaine signed two letters this week calling for the regulations on banks to be eased, according to a Wednesday report published by the Huffington Post, thereby ”setting himself up as a figure willing to do battle with the progressive wing of the party.”
Charles Chamberlain, executive director of the progressive political action committee Democracy for America, told the New York Times that Kaine’s selection “could be disastrous for our efforts to defeat Donald Trump in the fall” given the senator’s apparent support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Just before Clinton’s campaign made the official announcement that Kaine had been selected, the senator praised the TPP during an interview with the Intercept, though he signaled he had ultimately not decided how he would vote on the matter.
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Kaine’s record on reproductive rights has also generated controversy as news began to circulate that he was being considered to join Clinton’s ticket. Though Kaine recently argued in favor of providing Planned Parenthood with access to funding to fight the Zika virus and signed on as a co-sponsor of the Women’s Health Protection Act—which would prohibit states and the federal government from enacting restrictions on abortion that aren’t applied to comparable medical services—he has also been vocal about his personal opposition to abortion.
In a June interview on NBC’s Meet the Press, Kaine told host Chuck Todd he was “personally” opposed to abortion. He went on, however, to affirm that he still believed “not just as a matter of politics, but even as a matter of morality, that matters about reproduction and intimacy and relationships and contraception are in the personal realm. They’re moral decisions for individuals to make for themselves. And the last thing we need is government intruding into those personal decisions.”
As Rewire has previously reported, though Kaine may have a 100 percent rating for his time in the Senate from Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the campaign website for his 2005 run for governor of Virginia promised he would “work in good faith to reduce abortions” by enforcing Virginia’s “restrictions on abortion and passing an enforceable ban on partial birth abortion that protects the life and health of the mother.”
As governor, Kaine did support some existing restrictions on abortion, including Virginia’s parental consent law and a so-called informed consent law. He also signed a 2009 measure that created “Choose Life” license plates in the state, and gave a percentage of the proceeds to a crisis pregnancy network.
Regardless of Clinton’s vice president pick, the “center of gravity in the Democratic Party has shifted in a bold, populist, progressive direction,” said Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, in an emailed statement. “It’s now more important than ever that Hillary Clinton run an aggressive campaign on core economic ideas like expanding Social Security, debt-free college, Wall Street reform, and yes, stopping the TPP. It’s the best way to unite the Democratic Party, and stop Republicans from winning over swing voters on bread-and-butter issues.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article included a typo that misidentified Sen. Tim Kaine as a Republican. We regret this error.