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‘Unseemly’ focus on defunding women’s health could hurt GOP, advocates say

Advocates say GOP’s ‘incessant focus’ on ending financing for Planned Parenthood doesn’t respect women’s autonomy

Ten Republican would-be presidential nominees will duke it out during Thursday night’s televised debate in Cleveland. None of them are women.

But that isn’t likely to stop the GOP contenders from discussing women’s health. Reproductive health policy has been at the center of American political debate since the release last month of a series of videos secretly recorded by anti-abortion activists that show Planned Parenthood representatives discussing the harvesting of fetal tissue.

Conservative activists claim the organization is illegally selling the organs of aborted fetuses. It is against the law to profit from the sale of fetal tissue but legal to be reimbursed to cover the expenses involved in its collection.

In the 1990s using aborted fetal tissue for medical research had bipartisan support. A bioethics panel backed the practice under Ronald Reagan’s administration, and even current Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. John McCain of Arizona supported a bill to end a ban on federal funding for fetal tissue research in 1992.

Nonetheless, right-wing outrage over the video prompted a Republican-backed drive to strip Planned Parenthood of $528 million in federal funding, though on Monday the Senate failed to reach the 60 votes necessary to advance the legislation.

And then there were former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s comments at the Send North America Conference in Nashville, Tennessee, on Tuesday, in which he expressed doubt whether “we need half a billion dollars” dedicated to women’s health.

Bush has since backpedaled, saying that he “misspoke” and that his comments concerned Planned Parenthood funding specifically.

“There are countless community health centers, rural clinics and other women’s health organizations that need to be fully funded,” he said in a released statement. “They provide critical services to all but particularly low-income women who don’t have the access they need.”

Democrats, including leading women in the party, struck back at GOP threats to defund Planned Parenthood this week. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said Wednesday, “When you attack women’s health, you attack America’s health.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., wondered rhetorically whether GOP senators ought to have their heads examined for trying to defund women’s health centers. “Did you fall down, hit your head and think you woke up in the 1950s or the 1890s?” she quipped to fellow lawmakers.

All 10 GOP candidates want to end federal funding for Planned Parenthood, which provides contraception and screening for cancer and sexually transmitted infections in addition to terminating pregnancies

Sens. Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio voted Monday to end federal funding for the organization, and real estate magnate Donald Trump urged Republicans to shut down the government until federal funding was eliminated.

Michele Jawando, the vice president for legal progress at the Washington-based Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, said she hopes the Republican candidates will steer clear of so-called women’s issues during the Thursday night debate.

“This incessant focus on women’s health and their bodies is not only unseemly, it is not necessary, and it doesn’t respect women and the choices they make for their own lives or their health care,” she said. 

She added, “Half the people in your communities are women, and when you’re disinvesting in women, you’re disinvesting in your community. And that has dangerous consequences for everyone.”

Susan Cohen, the vice president for public policy at the Guttmacher Institute, a New York–based reproductive rights and policy group, said GOP candidates are making a mistake by trying to attack programs that many American women take for granted.

“It’s something that has been a no-brainer and something that generations of women have come to rely on,” she said of health care providers such as Planned Parenthood, “especially low-income women who depend on federally supported and state-supported programs.”

Opinion polls indicate a plurality of support for Planned Parenthood in the U.S. — which could indicate that attacking the organization in a general election could be costly. A Monmouth University poll released Tuesday found that 49 percent of people surveyed opposed defunding Planned Parenthood and 39 percent supported doing so. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Wednesday found that 45 percent of people viewed Planned Parenthood positively and 30 percent viewed it negatively.

GOP candidates, in bringing women’s health access into the spotlight, Cohen said, elicited angry reactions from many voters “because it would mean radically upending what has been long-standing U.S. policy and our national approach that young women and disadvantaged groups have access to the same quality reproductive health care as the rest of us.”

Instead of trying to defund women’s health care, Jawando said, lawmakers should focus on women’s issues that have yet to be achieved but ought to be.

“Let’s talk about equal pay,” she said. “Let’s talk about paid family leave.”

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