Congressional Republicans are launching a new effort to end federal support for Planned Parenthood amid questions over its handling of fetal tissue, and it appears GOP leaders are looking to women to lead that fight.
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) will lead a working group tasked with developing a legislative response to the spate of recently released undercover video of Planned Parenthood executives, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday. And House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said Monday that House leaders are looking closely at legislation by Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.), a veteran antiabortion advocate, that would block funding to the group unless it stops performing abortions.
The effort to put two women in front of the effort to defund Planned Parenthood could help Republican leaders fend off Democratic charges that they are playing fast and loose with women's health in order to placate their party's base.
The three undercover videos released by an antiabortion activist group known as the Center for Medical Progress has Republicans raising questions about whether Planned Parenthood has complied with the federal bans on very late-term abortions and sales of fetal tissue for profit. Planned Parenthood has apologized for the tone taken by its executives in the videos, who are depicted speaking casually about abortion procedures and fetal body parts, but the organization maintains that it has broken no laws.
Federal funding is already banned from paying for abortions, but Planned Parenthood takes in $500 million in government funding -- mainly through Medicaid reimbursements and special federal grants for family planning services.
"Is this the message that the Republicans want to leave America? That they want to defund Planned Parenthood -- defund, if not the largest, one of the largest providers of women's health services?" said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the minority whip. "That's the lasting impression they want to leave America with in the August recess? I hope not."
So far, it's mainly Republican men who have led the outcry on Planned Parenthood funding. On Monday, McCarthy said that "the very minimum that should happen is that money should be withheld this year until we reach the bottom of what happened."
"Knowing the doubt about what is going on here, is this a place that tax dollars should be spent?" McCarthy asked. "At the very least there should be a moratorium until this investigation is done."
In the Senate, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a presidential candidate, has made the most prominent moves, telling supporters he will "defeat and defund Planned Parenthood by any means necessary." But McConnell made clear Tuesday that while Paul will serve on the working group, he will not have the spotlight to himself.
Ernst, a freshman, is probably best known in Washington for her Harley Davidson rides and her "let's make 'em squeal" campaign ad proudly boasting of her past, castrating hogs on a family farm.
But Ernst, who was attacked by Planned Parenthood for her antiabortion positions during her campaign last year against Democrat Bruce Braley, has quietly assumed a key role on the abortion issue. Last week, she was the lead signer on a letter to Health and Human Services Director Sylvia Mathews Burwell asking her department to preserve records pertaining to Planned Parenthood and to initiate a formal review of whether the group complied with federal laws and regulations pertaining to late-term abortions and fetal tissue harvesting.
Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said in a statement Tuesday that any attempt to defund Planned Parenthood would "cut basic, preventive health care --- lifesaving cancer screenings, birth control, STI testing and treatment, and well-woman exams --- from millions of Americans."
"But concern for the women and men who rely on Planned Parenthood for services hasn't stopped members of the GOP like Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and others in their zealous quest to roll back women's access to health care before," Laguens continued. "At the end of the day, we know their true political agenda is to take away women’s access to health care."