Guest editorial: Sen. Leahy castigates colleagues who would deny women health care equity

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY at an event in Vergennes this past March.
Independent file photo/Steve James

Editor’s note: The following is a statement made by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, on the Senate floor Wednesday, May 11, during discussion about the Women’s Health Protection Act; a federal act that would protect a woman’s right for health care (and abortion) even if Roe v Wade is overruled. This federal act mirrors Vermont’s approval of The Freedom of Choice Act, passed overwhelmingly by the Vermont House and Senate and endorsed by Republican Gov. Phil Scott.

This is a debate about the Women’s Health Protection Act. Protecting women’s health. Protecting half America’s population in their right to seek the health care they require. Protecting their ability, half of America, to make decisions about their own bodies. How is this a question even up for debate?

Today the Senate considers the Women’s Health Protection Act. A woman’s right to make choices about her own body is a constitutional right. It was affirmed by the Supreme Court nearly 50 years ago. Polling – as if that should be the benchmark by which we legislate – shows that nearly two-out-of-three Americans believe the fundamental right established in 1973’s Roe vs. Wade should be upheld. Yet here we are today – a body of 100, 76 percent of which are male – making decisions about the private lives of the nearly 168 million women in this country. That’s ludicrous.

The right of any woman to receive the health care they choose and seek should be important to each and every one of us. Women – our mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts, friends – they know what is best for them in their own lives. How patronizing to suggest otherwise. How patriarchal. How insulting. How dangerous.

I am the dean of the Senate. I am the longest serving member of this body today. I have worked for decades to support legislation that affirms a woman’s right to access comprehensive health care from a trusted provider without interference. The right to comprehensive family planning resources – whatever those resources may be – is not only a fundamental right to privacy for these women, but it is an important public health policy as well.

In 2019, the Vermont House and Senate by wide margins approved The Freedom of Choice Act, which guarantees the right to access safe abortion care in Vermont. Governor Scott – a Republican – signed that bill into law in June 2019. If the Court does overturn Roe, the Freedom of Choice Act would protect this health care right in Vermont, just as the Supreme Court case that was ahead of Roe vs. Wade, Beecher vs. Leahy, does the same.

Once again, Vermont is a leader on an issue of national significance.

The unfortunate reality is that 26 other states stand ready to ban abortion rights in the absence of Roe. What are the women of these states to do? And prominent Republican voices in the Senate even now say they would not rule out the possibility that a future Senate and Congress would overrule such state laws in Vermont and elsewhere, and impose a national ban on women’s choice.

And what laws are these states prepared to pass – what resources are they prepared to provide – to support these women, and the children they will bear? The answer we know, and I fear, is none. States will determine what you do, but they won’t do anything to help you afterward.

The implications of the Supreme Court’s opinion, should a final decision mirror the leaked draft, go far beyond reproductive rights. For decades, the Supreme Court has stood as an independent arbiter in this country. Striking down a constitutional right that has supported millions of Americans, not just women, will cause many to lose confidence in the integrity of our judicial system. Worse still, it could threaten the rights protected under the precedent set by Roe and affirmed in other cases. I acknowledge the fear that many are feeling right now about that possibility.  Certainly I hear it in my office. And that is why we need to pass the Women’s Health Protection Act.

What would the suffragists say of us today? What would the icons of the civil rights movement say of us today? A vote against the Women’s Health Protection Act is a vote against equality. It’s a vote against women, plain and simple. It’s a vote against the progress we have made to right the wrongs of inequality. And it is at odds with what an overwhelming majority of the American public believes. It says, in many states in this country, women will be treated differently than men.

You know, my sons and grandsons can travel anywhere in the United States knowing the law is the same for them. My daughter and granddaughters, under this, would know they could not be treated the same as they travelled around the country. What does that say about America, that our sons and our grandsons will be treated differently than our daughters and our granddaughters? Our daughters and our granddaughters will be told by some states, you have less rights than your brothers or your fathers or your uncles.

Shame on this Senate today. I stand with women – my wife, my daughter, my granddaughters – when I say that I trust them to make the health decisions that are best for them. And I will fight against any effort to erode those fundamental, constitutional rights. That’s what the Senate should do; that’s what we should do if we truly are going to be the conscience of the nation. That’s what this Vermonter intends to do.


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