Women’s health, abortion, and the Planned Parenthood hearing

One of Congress’s most underappreciated powers is its investigative power.  Underappreciated, that is, by those who have not been the unfortunate targets of an investigation on Capitol Hill.  Those who have been know how miserable that a congressional committee can make one’s life.  The power is not mentioned in the Constitution, but the Supreme Court has repeatedly found that congressional authority to investigate is an incident of its legislative powers.

Therefore, it is at least arguable that the proposed Republican strategy of revoking Planned Parenthood’s federal funding has been somewhat short sighted from the start.  Perhaps it might make more sense to crawl all over Planned Parenthood with a congressional microscope, even if the group’s funding remains intact.  After all, federal funds already cannot be used for abortions.  Planned Parenthood clearly provides health services unrelated to abortion and there is substantial public support for continued funding.  Nevertheless, it is hard not to be troubled by the current controversy surrounding Planned Parenthood.  So while Congress’s appropriations power is certainly among its most important weapons, it is not clear to me that the power of the purse is necessarily more potent than the Congress’s investigative powers.

Today, consistent with an investigative strategy, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a hearing on funding for Planned Parenthood, calling the group’s president, Cecile Richards, to testify.  The hearing went about as one would expect.  But at one point, the questioning turned to Planned Parenthood’s support for political candidates.  Richards stated that the group was bipartisan, and that she wished more Republicans supported “women’s health” and “women’s rights.”

The question that I did not hear asked is this: can a person be in favor of women’s health and women’s rights, but be opposed generally to abortion?  Does, or would, Planned Parenthood support a candidate who opposed abortion generally but otherwise supported women’s health issues and gender equality?  Abortion rights supporters repeatedly connect abortion to women’s health.  But surely women’s health, and women’s rights, can be severed from abortion.  If the vast majority of Planned Parenthood’s work does not involve abortions, then would it not make sense for Planned Parenthood to support at least some candidates who do not favor abortion rights but who favor  the group’s other work?  Otherwise, it is simply abortion, not women’s health more broadly, that is the litmus test for earning Planned Parenthood’s political support.  In that sense, Planned Parenthood would be trying to have it both ways – touting publicly their substantial non-abortion services, but then only supporting candidates who favor abortion, regardless of the candidate’s views on a range of other women’s health issues.

Imagine a candidate who supports, among other things, substantial funding for breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and cervical cancer research; supports equal pay; supports domestic violence programs and shelters; supports strengthening criminal investigative and prosecutorial tools with respect to human trafficking; supports legislation and programs that will enhance job opportunities for women; and supports access to contraception.  Now imagine that same candidate – for whatever reason, be it religious, moral, ethical, or otherwise – opposes abortion, except in narrow cases of rape, incest, or where the life of the mother is in danger. Would Planned Parenthood support that candidate?  Of course, someone who opposes abortion may not want Planned Parenthood’s political support.  But that is not the question – the question is whether Planned Parenthood would at least be willing to give their support to such a candidate.

I wish someone had pursued that question at today’s hearing.  If they did so, I unfortunately missed it.  But it would be a good start toward decoupling abortion from women’s health more broadly.


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