Conversation With: Former Sen. Olympia Snowe Talks GOP’s Need for Diversity, Women’s Health

Former U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R—Maine.
Former U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R—Maine.

Former Sen. Olympia Snowe, R‑Maine, was the keynote speaker at Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas’ annual awards luncheon on Monday afternoon. The divisive politicization of Congress and its resulting gridlock were the deciding factors in the moderate Republican stepping down in 2012 without running for a fourth Senate term.

She was unafraid to cross party lines on a vote if it meant benefiting her constituents. She was a fierce defender of equal rights for women, fighting for equal pay legislation and mandating that women be included in clinical trials.

In an interview before her speech on Monday, she discussed the impact that partisanship has had on women’s health and what the Republican party must do to improve diversity.

You had a reputation for breaking party lines on some major issues you believed in. Do you feel the current political environment, particularly the GOP, has room for a politician like that?

I would hope so because I think that’s the only way the Republican Party can build towards a governing majority. They’re going to have to be broader and more inclusive in terms of diverse views and philosophies that will appeal to a broader segment of the population, which currently is not the case.

And I think that’s why they’ve been struggling in the past because they’ve narrowed their appeal and their approach on various issues that are important to the average American, whether it’s women or Hispanics. Whatever the case may be, they certainly narrow their base and they need to be more inclusive.

That’s the way it used to work. I haven’t changed, the Republican party has changed dramatically over the years. I’ve stayed true to traditions of the Republican Party, which are limited government, individual opportunity and freedom, strong national defense, fiscal responsibility. I think those issues are what matter to people and are producing solutions to problems that this country faces, which obviously is not the case.

So, for the Republican Party to be successful, it has to appeal to a broader majority. It’s interesting, in 2004, after the presidential election, those of us Republicans were given some advice about the future, about the political world, about what Republicans had to do in the future to provide a broader majority.

It was to appeal to women and Hispanics. Women who were married, single, and so forth. But how have we done that in score? Not very well. That kind of guidance is going to be essential going forward. Now the Republican party has issued their own report earlier in 2013 of examining of what they need to do and steps they need to take as a party to build that collation.

Hopefully they will move with that, not just in words and paying lip service, but, rather, in actions. That’s what’s going to matter at the end of the day. It’s about solving problems on a practical basis.

Do you feel that women’s health has become overly politicized? 

Absolutely, it has. It’s always been a challenge in the arena, but never more so than now. We’ve obviously witnessed that time and again. It is occurring and it is a setback, I think, for women to make choices, difficult choices.

But to deny women access to family planning services and screenings is critical. It’s unfortunately become part of a political arena today that has become controversial. At one point, unbelievably, pro-life and pro-choice agreed around the issue of access to family planning and recognized that as one way we could achieve a shared goal in pregnancies and reducing abortions.

How that all became so divisive and controversial instead of bridging the gap between the two? There’s going to be differences on that question and that’s understandable. But, on the other hand, I don’t see how government should be making those decisions for women.

So, it’s gotten more and more difficult and challenging in the political arena for someone elected to address these questions. And now, of course, it’s even in the Supreme Court to the extent we’re seeing currently with the appending challenges.

What do you see the future of women’s health being?

Well, we have made some progress but we have much further to go. That means working together, because I think that is important as women recognizing it, working with elected officials and demanding accountability on their part. And presenting the facts and connecting how it relates to people they represent.

They should be part of this equation in terms of running for office and serving in levels and bring their voice and perspective is critically important. That made the difference for me and the women with whom I served with in the House and Senate.

In fact, we focused on women’s health when I was in the House of Representatives when women were excluded from clinical study trials, unbelievably, that were funded by the federal government and taxpayers. We changed all that.

So women can change all that. I think most people support what Planned Parenthood is trying to do with access to critical health services for women. The question is separating the facts and making it known, but also to get candidates and elected officials to understand the perils once they deny the funding and the ability to access service because it’s affecting so many women across America.

And ultimately, it becomes more costly. At the end of the day, it becomes more costly in more ways than one for the victims of those cuts and those closures.