Two years after she decided not to seek a fourth term in the U.S. Senate amid the bluster of divisive partisanship, former Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said women’s access to quality healthcare is a victim of Congress’ fierce politicization.
The longtime moderate Republican senator was the keynote speaker at Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas’ annual awards luncheon Monday at the Hilton Anatole.
Selecting Snowe to headline was strategic: 20 Planned Parenthood clinics in Texas have shuttered because of decisions approved by the Texas Legislature, said Debbie Barnes, community board chair of Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas.
The GOP-controlled statehouse slashed the Medicaid-funded Women’s Health Program in 2011. Two years later, it instilled strict regulations at clinics that provide abortion services. Some estimates say just six such clinics will remain open after all the law’s provisions are enacted.
Snowe had a reputation built on compromise and a willingness to vote against her party if she believed it would benefit her constituency. The lack of bipartisanship in Washington has caused major gridlock at the federal level. And at legislatures in Texas and around the country, she said it has led to a majority, often made up of social conservatives, dictating the law of the land. One of the victims has been women’s healthcare.
Preventive services like mammograms and tests for cervical cancer were “political collateral damage.” When clinics close because of laws targeting contraception and family planning, women, often poor and uninsured, lose access to the preventive services provided there. Abortion services make up just 3 percent of the care the nonprofit provides, said Ken Lambrecht, the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas.
“Politics have no place in dictating the quality and the level of healthcare services for women in the United States of America,” Snowe said, prompting rousing applause.
She was preceded onstage Monday by Lambrecht, Barnes, and Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. She called Snowe one of the “bravest and fiercest defenders of women in American history.”
The Greater Texas chapter of Planned Parenthood—which extends from the Dallas-Fort Worth area south to Austin and east to Tyler—has bipartisanship evident in its fundraising: Of the $19.5 million it raised last year, half came from Republicans while the other half came from Democrats, Lambrecht said.
Snowe stepped down in 2012 after spending more than 33 years in Congress. In an editorial published in The Washington Post, she wrote that the “dysfunction and political polarization” of the U.S. Senate made it fail to live up “to what the Founding Fathers envisioned.”
Snowe, who last year wrote a book about the importance of compromise in Congress, started Olympia’s List to honor legislators who have a track record of working with one another. She said the group is crafting a list of recommendations to improve bipartisanship to be presented to Congress in June 2014. Still, though, “we have many miles to go before we sleep,” she said, paraphrasing the author Robert Frost.
And, indeed, the woman who ran for office in 1978 using the slogan, “Not One of The Boys,” has seen what comes after those many miles: the number of women in the U.S. Senate more than doubled; two more women have been added to the Supreme Court; and she ushered in comprehensive equity laws that, among other things, forced pharmaceutical companies to include women in their clinical trials.
Sitting in a room off to the side of the ballroom before her luncheon talk, Snowe contemplated why women’s health has become such a “lightning rod” in the political sphere. The politicization of family planning, she said, has scared some politicians from addressing the questions that arise.
“I think most people support what Planned Parenthood is trying to do, access to critical health services for women,” she said. “So the question is imparting the facts and making it known, but also to get candidates and elected officials to understand the perils as well once they deny that kind of funding and the ability to access service.”