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Will Tom Daschle Be What The Reproductive Rights Community Wants?

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Originally posted on RH Reality Check

According to the LA Times, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle has accepted President-Elect Obama's offer to become the new Secretary of Health and Human Services. Daschle is currently a fellow with the Center for American Progress, a Democratic think tank. It was originally reported that he would oversee Obama's health policy working group but with this appointment, it's unclear what his role will be in that regard.

The former South Dakota senator may please some inside-the-Beltway Democrats, but the reaction of reproductive and sexual health advocates working on the ground will be interesting to gauge. As I know many of our readers are, in fact, leaders in the community, I'd love to read comments from some of you below.

Tom Daschle did not win his re-election bid in 2004 -- some say for his lack of leadership after 9/11; others say for not being "forceful" enough as a Democratic senate leader.

Daschle's record on reproductive and sexual health and rights is a mixed one. NARAL Pro-Choice America rated him 50% for his support for the (non-medically termed) Partial Birth Abortion Ban, and for the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, a bill that makes it a crime to prosecute a perpetrator for two crimes in a violent crime against a pregnant woman. Daschle, also, however, opposes the ban on abortion procedures in military hospitals and supports expanding funding embryonic stem cell research.

Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, believes Daschle will be an effective representative for reproductive health access and rights issues in the White House, telling RH Reality Check,

"Sen. Daschle will bring thoughtful progressive leadership to the Department of Health and Human Services. We appreciate his recent efforts to help defeat two abortion bans in South Dakota. We had a good working relationship with him during his tenure as Senate leader and look forward to continuing that relationship as he assumes this pivotal role in the Obama administration."

Daschle has not been in Congress for the last four years of the Bush administration's antics related to reproductive and sexual health and rights. As HHS Secretary, he'll inherit the Bush administration's latest bid to unethically squeeze in (after the White House's own deadline for proposals this year) an outrageous proposal for regulations for the Department of Health and Human Services. The proposed HHS regulations would allow federally funded health care providers and health care institutions to refuse to provide contraception for any reason under federal conscience-clause laws. The proposed regulations, as I've written about many times, incited a tidal wave of protest from public health advocates, health care providers themselves, health care consumers, activists and more -- receiving almost 200,000 comments during the public commenting period. The proposed regulations, if promulgated, could seriously endanger women's critical access to reproductive health care.

It is unlikely that if these proposed regulations become HHS policy that Daschle would support them. But can he be counted on to reverse the regulation quickly?

Julie Davids of the Community HIV/AIDS Mobilization Project is optimistic, however, about the leadership role Daschle could play in Obama's HIV/AIDS plan:

"Tom Daschle is a noted leader in insisting on a United States response in the global epidemic. Tomorrow, a thousand people with HIV and their supporters are rallying at the White House to support the ambitious Obama/Biden platform to confront the domestic epidemic -- and we hope that Daschle's acceptance of the HHS post signifies that he will make HIV/AIDS in our own nation a priority of his tenure."

And James Wagoner with Advocates for Youth sees Obama's choice of Daschle for HHS head as "extremely promising. Thank god we'll get the ideaologues out of there. Public health has taken a horrific hit over the last eight years." With Daschle at the helm, Wagoner sees brighter days ahead, "Public health can finally breathe again in this country and get back to its evidence base."

Wagoner takes a political perspective as well, exploring reasons beyond Daschle's support for evidence-based public health,

"Secondly, Dashle's staff when he was in the senate was pretty well regarded by pro-choice advocates. I think that team is likely to be resurrected to some degree within HHS . Third, at the macro level it's really smart to have a Secretary of HHS that has such deep "hill" [ed. note: Capitol Hill] experience. The [health care] agenda is enormous and it has to move through the U.S. Congress adeptly. You need a good sherpa to go climbing in the Himalyas and to get through Congress, and Daschle is that sherpa."

Wagoner does acknowledge that "advocates will still have a challenge. He won't be able to wave a a magic wand and get all things through. David Obey [ed. note: Rep. Obey, House Democrat, pushed to increase funding for abstinence-only funding] should be a sobering thought as we move forward given his adamant opposition to progress in sex education."

On a larger health care system scale, Daschle may bring some compelling ideas to the table about the ways in which our health care system needs to be constructed, beginning at the top. Ezra Klein interviewed Daschle four years ago after the release of Daschle's book, Critical: What We Can Do About the Health-Care Crisis, in which the Senator suggested a Federal Health Board made up of constituents who understand what regular American health care consumers need. Daschle said, "I would like to have people who reflect the common, daily concerns of average working Americans on that board, making sure those consumer voices are heard."

It is clear that in the coming days the reproductive health and rights community will weigh in with their thoughts on whether or not Daschle represents a beacon of hope as a leader of our next presidential administration's health policies. CPC Watch, a watchdog organization that seeks to expose crisis pregnancy centers as "fake clinics," blogged about Daschle's appointment from a reproductive and sexual health and rights perspective today and may help set the tone for the discussion within the reproductive health community over the next several days and weeks, asking:

"After all, coming from eight painful years under Bush and his anti-choice, anti-woman cabinet, Daschle might seem a fine replacement to some. He's certainly no Leavittt, and is a supporter of Roe. But in these times of economic disparity, massive unemployment, bunk sex education, and patriarchal control, we must ask clearly, is Roe enough? Is simply accepting abortion rights within the first trimester with absolutely no guarantee to access and affordability all we're going to ask of those who have sworn to represent us and protect our rights?"