Mr. President, I rise today to speak about the so-called "Child Custody Protection Act." This is yet another one of those divisive bills with a deceptive title and a dangerous impact on women.
Today many Americans are upset about the direction our country is moving in. You'd think that the Republican Majority would finally start addressing the real issues that affect working families every day – things like access to healthcare, high energy prices, fixing the prescription drug program, and protecting our ports.
But instead, today we're seeing yet another debate on another election-year gimmick. Last month, Republicans rolled out a constitutional amendment on gay marriage just so they could energize their base. Then they brought up a constitutional amendment on flag-burning. Now we have a divisive bill that threatens the health of women and undermines our rights.
It's no wonder that Americans are so frustrated with this Republican Majority. Today families are facing real challenges, and once again what we see here is the Republican leadership is playing election year games. To me, this is just the latest example of how Republicans have the wrong priorities.
With a war overseas, painful cuts to education here at home, veterans being denied healthcare, soaring energy costs, and mounting debt, the Republican Majority is saying this is the most important issue we could be debating today. Well I think they should stop wasting time on divisive election-year politics and start focusing on the real challenges facing the American people. We should be talking about pressing needs – not a dangerous and misguided bill that threatens the health of our nation’s young women.
Today's debate comes in the context of a series of attacks on women's rights. Since 1994, we have seen a consistent and aggressive effort in Congress to limit a women’s right to choose. There have been more than 170 anti-choice votes taken in Congress since 1994. This bill follows that troubling pattern. This legislation is not about protecting young women or improving communication within families, or stopping sexual predators. Instead, it is just another attempt by Republicans to chip away at a woman’s right to safe and legal reproductive health care.
Let me turn to the substance of the bill. This legislation could criminalize a grandparent, aunt, or adult sibling for responding to a request for help from a young woman in a crisis pregnancy situation. If any of these caring adults accompany a young woman across state lines to obtain reproductive health services, and the woman's home state has a parental-involvement law, then those caring adults could be criminally prosecuted. Today, we will offer an amendment to exempt grandparents and clergy from this onerous bill. It's the least we can do to minimize the harm of this legislation.
But this law doesn’t stop at turning caring adults into criminals. It would also criminalize anyone who transports a pregnant minor across any state line. Imagine a young woman living in a rural area with no reproductive health service providers, and the nearest facility is in a large city just over the state line. If that young woman boards a bus or takes a taxi to the city to get an abortion, the person who drives her could be criminally liable under this law, and sued by the parents.
Mr. President, I think we all agree that a young woman facing a crisis pregnancy should be encouraged to talk to her parents. According to a study by Stanley Henshaw and Kathryn Kost, in the vast majority of these situations, the young woman does involve her parents. But tragically, in situations where women don't tell their parents, one-third of the young women are victims of abuse. In an ideal world, every young woman would talk to her parents. But we don't live in an ideal world. The reality is that a young woman cannot always turn to a parent. We are not talking about a young woman who is afraid her parents will be ashamed or shun her. We are talking about serious situations where the young woman may be a victim of incest or abuse. A young woman who has an abusive home situation often accurately predicts the danger of telling a parent about a pregnancy. This bill would punish those young women if they seek the support and help of other family members or clergy.
We live in a time when we have a lot of families who don't fit the traditional two-parent model. More and more grandparents are raising their grandchildren. Divorced parents are getting remarried, and young women can develop close relationships with their step-parents. In these families, the caring adult who is responsible for the day-to-day care of a young woman would be criminally liable, and could even be sued by an absentee parent.
We also know that some young women have no other alternative but to go to another state to obtain reproductive health services. Access to these services all across our country is severely limited. Eighty-seven percent of counties have no providers. There are states such as Mississippi that have only one provider. Our laws should reflect the reality that for some women these services cannot be found locally.
Unfortunately, the only thing this bill does do is ensure that young women who are intent on seeking reproductive health services go it alone. If a young woman thinks that bringing a caring adult or supportive friend will get that person in trouble, she will make the trip on her own. You wouldn’t want your children to drive home from the hospital after having surgery, but this legislation will result in young women driving themselves after having a medical procedure. How can my colleagues say that this bill is about the safety of young women when it actually endangers them more?
Proponents claim that the "judicial bypass procedure" is an adequate protection for young women who feel they can’t involve their parents. That's not the case. A young woman would have to go to a courthouse, get a hearing, tell the judge and anyone else in the courtroom her situation, and wait for a judge to rule. Now imagine that this happens in a small town where the judge is friends with her parents. Whether it's in a big city or a small town, a young woman who's never been to court could find the whole process intimidating and overwhelming.
Mr. President, this bill doesn’t even have an exception to protect the health of young women. That raises huge constitutional questions. Since Roe v. Wade, every constitutional federal law restricting a woman's right to choice has contained a health exception, and many laws have been struck down because they lack one. Should we really be saying that a young woman's health does not count when she faces a crisis pregnancy? Is this Senate ready to tell young women that their health and safety do not matter?
This bill doesn't care about a young women's health, and it barely even cares about her life. That's because the bill's exception for a life-threatening situation is very narrow and very limited.
In addition, according to experts who have studied it, this bill could effectively nullify the laws of states that allow physicians to provide confidential medical services to minors – like my home state of Washington. The people of my state have twice affirmed a woman's right to choose. That is the settled position of our state. This bill could reach into my home state and effectively eliminate those protections. No matter how you feel about this bill, I think everyone should be concerned that federal intervention could undermine the ability of states to set their own laws on this difficult subject. The House version goes even further – potentially making criminals out of Washington state physicians who follow the laws of Washington state.
Proponents of this bill claim that it is needed to prevent sexual predators from taking pregnant young women across state lines to obtain reproductive health services against their will. But that's not how the bill is written. If it were truly meant to prevent sexual predators from harming young women, why would it criminally prosecute a young woman’s family members, including grandparents, aunts, or adult siblings? Why is the scope of this bill so broad that it includes clergy members and even unknowing taxi drivers?
Every one of us wants to reduce the number of abortions that occur. Mr. President, instead of forcing the government deeper into sensitive and personal family relationships, we should focus on preventing teen pregnancies. We should be working on a comprehensive approach to reproductive health education for our teens. That will help reduce teen pregnancy and that's the goal of the Lautenberg-Menendez amendment. That amendment would be a good step forward – but even that addition could not redeem such a flawed underlying bill. We should be working on ways to reduce the number of crisis pregnancies among teens and women alike. That is why on issues like emergency contraceptives I have fought so hard to ensure that the FDA makes its decisions based on science – on whether a drug is safe and effective.
Instead of working to reduce teen pregnancies, this Senate is looking for ways to criminalize those who want to help and support teens facing a crisis pregnancy. Unfortunately, this bill is just what it looks like -- another ploy for the majority to play to their base in an election year. Women's lives should not be used as pawns in a political debate, and women's rights should not be traded away in a ploy for votes.
Let's send a message that we know our country is facing serious challenges and we are going to spend our very limited time addressing those challenges and fighting for working families. I urge my colleagues to vote against this dangerous, divisive, and misguided bill.