Bernie Sanders Leans Into Planned Parenthood at the CNN Health Care Debate

The Vermont senator centered Planned Parenthood during the televised debate, defying the caricature that he is unconcerned with women's health care.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., walks on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, Sept. 25, 2017. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., walks on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, Sept. 25, 2017. Photo: Susan Walsh/AP

Sens. Lindsey Graham and Bill Cassidy faced off against Sens. Bernie Sanders and Amy Klobuchar at a CNN town hall Monday night, just hours after their last-ditch effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act collapsed.

Earlier that evening, Sen. Susan Collins had become the third Republican to publicly reject the Graham-Cassidy repeal effort but at Monday night’s debate, Graham vowed to “press on.”

Graham and Cassidy pitched their plan, while Sanders, a Vermont Independent, used the debate to articulate his single-payer proposal, while Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota, joined him in defending the gains of Obamacare and picking apart Graham-Cassidy.

During the 2016 Democratic contest for the party’s presidential nomination, Sanders battled politically with Planned Parenthood, labeling them the “establishment” after they endorsed his rival, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The organization had never before given an endorsement in a Democratic primary.

Yet on Monday night, Sanders leaned in hard toward his support of Planned Parenthood specifically and abortion rights in general. “They want to tell 2.5 million women in the United States of America who today choose Planned Parenthood to get their health care they can’t do that, because they want to defund Planned Parenthood,” Sanders noted in his opening remarks.

Sanders’s Medicare for All bill pushes for women’s autonomy by repealing the Hyde Amendment, which restricts federal funding for abortions. That would make it the most far-reaching Democratic health care legislation when it comes to reproductive freedom.

Klobuchar, who also opposed Graham-Cassidy, noted one in five women gets their health care from Planned Parenthood.

The bill changes what are called essential benefits, and that was one of the positive changes that was made with Obamacare,” Klobuchar said. “And what that said is maternity care has to be offered, … contraceptives have to be offered. This changes that. And 50 million women aren’t going to be very happy about that, right?”

A preliminary Congressional Budget Office analysis of the Graham-Cassidy plan estimated that the deficit would be reduced by $133 billion between 2017 and 2026, but “millions” would lose comprehensive health insurance.

Even if Sanders hadn’t begun with Planned Parenthood, CNN made sure it would come up. A woman at the town hall told a story about how Planned Parenthood discovered cysts and benign tumors in her ovaries, adding that without the organization’s care, it was probable she would not have been able to have children.  

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 27: Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards speaks during a rally outside of the Capitol Building on July 27, 2017 in Washington, DC. Senate Republicans are working to pass a stripped-down, or "skinny repeal" version of Obamacare reform, with elimination of the individual and employer mandates and the tax on medical devices being considered.  (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards speaks during a rally outside of the Capitol Building on July 27, 2017 in Washington.

Photo: Zach Gibson/Getty Images

“Why would you advocate for a bill that would block women like me from the essential care that helped me to become a mother, provides affordable cancer screenings for thousands and thousands of people, especially for those who live in the many parts of this country that are not served by community health centers?” she asked the senators.  

Cassidy claimed most Planned Parenthood settings are in urban areas that have “lots of OB/GYNs.”

“Now, as it turns out, the folks who don’t have access to those cancer screenings live in rural areas,” Cassidy said. “So the idea is that we want someone to have to drive — a lower income person drive three hours to a Planned Parenthood facility there to get her screening, or would we rather take that money and put it back in the rural area to allow her to get her health care there?”

In fact, there are medically underserved areas outside of rural America, but either way, Planned Parenthood shot back at Cassidy during the debate.

In addition to abortion services, patients also rely on Planned Parenthood for pregnancy services, men’s health services, HIV testing, and STD treatment, among other routine health matters.

Graham responded to the woman’s question about stripping essential care from women by invoking thoroughly debunked videos from 2015, which anti-abortion activists claimed depicted Planned Parenthood illegally trying to sell fetal body parts.    

So all I can say about this debate about Planned Parenthood, a lot of Americans that were pretty upset when they saw the videos of selling body parts of aborted children,” Graham said.

The videos sparked a wave of state investigations that found no evidence of Planned Parenthood selling or profiting off fetal tissue. Instead, a Texas grand jury even turned around and instead indicted the conservative provocateurs.

Sanders pointed out that his Republican colleagues are “really into choice” but continue their crusade to defund Planned Parenthood.

“Well, 2.5 million women have made a choice, and the choice they have made, as you have made, is that they want to go to Planned Parenthood to get their health care,” Sanders said. “And generally speaking, most people think that Planned Parenthood does an excellent job.”

For Klobuchar, one problem came from the dearth of women in the Senate — and on the stage.

“I love these guys,” she said, “but maybe if we added a few more women senators …”

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