The U.S. Senate approved repeal of a pro-Planned Parenthood rule by the slimmest of margins last week, in an action that twice required Vice President Mike Pence to break a tie.
Pence's decisive votes—first to bring the proposal to the Senate floor and then to pass it—broke 50-50 roll calls and provided final action by Congress to reverse an Obama administration regulation. The rule in question effectively bars states from prohibiting funds for Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers. The House of Representatives approved the measure in a 230-188 vote in February.
President Trump must sign the legislation for it to become law.
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued the rule in December, and many pro-life advocates perceived it as a going-away gift to abortion providers five weeks before President Obama left office. The rule affects the Title X program, which provides federal funds to states for family planning and preventive health services.
The HHS rule appears particularly beneficial to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA). In recent years, at least 12 states have cut money for Planned Parenthood, some in the wake of various scandals uncovered regarding the country's No. 1 abortion provider. Courts have blocked those actions in some cases, thereby enabling the organization to continue to receive government funds.
Voting in his capacity as president of the Senate, Pence may prove to be the difference-maker in enabling states once again to refuse to send Title X money to abortion providers.
"Every taxpayer dollar that goes to Planned Parenthood is one that could go to hundreds of other health and family clinics that don't exploit children, women and communities for profit," said Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). "Planned Parenthood is a storefront for the culture of death, and it deserves not one cent of federal money.
"I'm thankful to Vice President Pence for casting the decisive vote on this measure, and I pray for the day soon when taxpayer funds will be used to protect human dignity, rather than assault it," Moore told Baptist Press in written comments.
Evangeline Bartz, corporate counsel for Americans United for Life, said, "Women's health should not be used by the abortion industry to hijack funds better distributed through medical centers committed to their full-service needs."
Congress' disapproval of the rule means it also "has acted to prevent future pro-abortion administrations from reinstituting it as an agency rule," she said in a written statement.
Planned Parenthood responded to the possibility it would lose Title X funds in some states with a promise. "We will never stop fighting for the right of every person to access the care they need," said PPFA Executive Vice President Dawn Laguens in written comments.
The tie votes demonstrated Senate Republicans cannot depend on all 52 of their members or any Democrats on some abortion-related measures. Two Republicans—Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska—voted against the resolution, while none of the 48 Democrats voted for it. Even Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia—who have described themselves as pro-life—refused to depart from their Democratic colleagues.
Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn., applauded the Senate's approval of her proposal, House Joint Resolution 43.
"Abortion is not health care, and vulnerable women seeking true comprehensive care deserve better than abortion-centric facilities like Planned Parenthood," Black said in a news release.
"For over 45 years, states like Tennessee have had the authority to direct federal family planning funds to the health care providers that best suit the needs of their unique communities," she said. "Sadly, in a parting gift to the abortion industry, President Obama stole this freedom and flexibility and forced his own political agenda on states across the country."
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., opposed the resolution on the floor, charging Senate Republicans with "continuing on their extreme, anti-women agenda."
The new HHS rule does not explicitly block states from providing Title X funds to abortion providers. Instead, it bars states from basing the selection of a recipient organization on anything other than "its ability to provide Title X services." As a result, states are unable to block funds from going to organizations simply because they provide abortions.
According to federal law, Title X funds cannot be used for the performance of abortions, but pro-life advocates point out grants to Planned Parenthood and similar providers free up other funds for use in performing abortions.
Planned Parenthood affiliates performed 323,999 abortions during 2013-14, the most recent year for which statistics are available. PPFA and its affiliates received $553.7 million in government grants and reimbursements, according to its latest annual financial report (2014-15).
The latest in a series of scandals plaguing the organization involves the online release beginning in 2015 of secretly recorded videos that allegedly showed Planned Parenthood officials discussing the sale of organs from aborted children.
Congress is considering using a health-care bill or other legislation to cut most of Planned Parenthood's federal funding and direct it to federally qualified health centers that do not perform abortions.
The ERLC is conducting an online advertising campaign to rally support for the congressional effort to slash federal dollars for Planned Parenthood. The effort is the first of its kind by the ERLC and includes a digital petition for delivery to congressional leaders. The petition is available for signing at erlc.com/initiatives/defund-planned-parenthood.
Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service.