Typically, when “Congress” and “women’s health” are in the same sentence, it’s because national lawmakers are pushing for a 20-week abortion ban, trying to roll back access to birth control, or working to limit low-income women’s insurance coverage for abortion. But this week, there’s something different on the agenda. On Tuesday, the Senate will consider two measures that would protect — not restrict — women’s reproductive rights.
This morning, lawmakers are debating the “Protect Women’s Health from Corporate Interference Act,” a piece of legislation intended to override the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on Hobby Lobby. Spearheaded by Sens. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Mark Udall (D-CO), the measure would prevent for-profit businesses from dropping birth control coverage by clarifying that no federal law allows companies to refuse to follow Obamacare’s contraception mandate.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), who has previously promised to “do something” about Hobby Lobby, has fast-tracked the legislation and could bring it to a full vote as early as Wednesday. In addition to its 40 Democratic co-sponsors, the bill has also been endorsed by a wide range of reproductive health organizations, including the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the political arm of the largest group of OB-GYNs in the country.
And that’s not all. Also on Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hear the first testimony on the Women’s Health Protection Act, a measure that was introduced by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) last year in an attempt to stem the tide of state-level attacks on abortion. Under that legislation, states would not be allowed to enact additional restrictions on abortion that either limit access to the procedure or interfere with doctors’ medical judgment.
Several reproductive rights advocates — including Dr. Willie Parker, one of the last abortion providers in Mississippi who says his Christian faith compels him to do his work — will testify at Tuesday’s committee hearing. Speakers will highlight the consequence of state-level abortion restrictions that have enshrined bad medicine into law. “Congress has the unique opportunity to truly act on behalf of women’s health and safety, and to push aside downright dishonest claims that fail to hold water against decades of medical and scientific facts,” Nancy Northup, the president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, points out in her prepared testimony.
It’s unlikely either effort will succeed. While the two measures may very well be approved in the Senate, they face little hope of passing the GOP-controlled House. So it’s important to remember that a legislative fix for Hobby Lobby certainly won’t be immediate, and states will certainly continue passing additional restrictions on abortion.
Nonetheless, supporters argue that it’s still somewhat historic for national lawmakers to take up proactive pro-choice legislation in the midst of a political climate that has recently seen record-breaking levels of anti-abortion legislation across the country. The Hobby Lobby bill may force Republicans to go on the record about whether or not they actually support women’s access to birth control coverage, something that could help make reproductive rights a central focus of the upcoming midterm and presidential elections. And when it comes to Blumenthal’s bill, as the New York Times’ editorial board pointed out this week, “the hearing can serve a valuable purpose if it alerts legislators and the public to a pernicious charade by removing the ‘patina of respectability’ from what are essentially phony restrictions of no medical value.”