Will Tom Daschle Be the Secretary of HHS the Reproductive Rights Community Wants?

Updated 12:35pm PST, November 19, 2008

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 progressive
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 allows a perpetrator to be prosecuted 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 ideologues 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?

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

For more information or to schedule an interview with contact press@rhrealitycheck.org.

  • paul-bradford



    I just finished reading the Washington Post article about the Daschle choice.  That’s where I learned that Obama had written a blurb for the book you referenced, Critical: What We Can Do about the Health-Care Crisis.  Obama’s take then could give us some idea about what he likes about Daschle:


    The American health-care system is in crisis, and workable solutions have been blocked for years by deeply entrenched ideological divisions," Obama wrote at the time. "Sen. Daschle brings fresh thinking to this problem, and his Federal Reserve for Health concept holds great promise for bridging this intellectual chasm and, at long last, giving this nation the health care it deserves.

    Obama is keyed into the fact that ‘workable solutions have been blocked for years by deeply entrenched ideological divisions’.  I’ve noticed that Obama is wary of idealogues on both sides of health care disputes.  Daschle, and Obama, will disappoint the right and the left by being pragmatic instead of strident.

    Obama will make it his goal to reduce unintended pregnancy and abortion — and he’ll cobble together a plan that focuses on education (including abstinence advocacy).  The new administration will be more concerned about tangible policy results than it will be about promises made to Planned Parenthood.


    Bet you a nickel FOCA never gets signed — I bet it won’t even get read out…


    Paul Bradford

    Pro-Life Catholics for Choice

  • http://debrahaffner.blogspot.com invalid-0

    I’m guessing this is only the first of the “consensus” type appointments that we’ll see in the days ahead. Clearly, in terms of sexual and reproductive health, it won’t be quite the battle it has been for the past eight years. But if you were wondering if we could sit back and just enjoy the next four, I think this is a good indication that people who support sexual justice need to continue speaking out.
    Rev. Debra Haffner

  • invalid-0

    I’d give Daschle a 50%, too, but on issues as a whole. On the downside, he’s heavily beholden to lobbyists. On the upside, he has vast and varied experience in the political arena, and fought the bushdick ideological-idiocy machine to a standstill more often than anyone else.

    Now that he’s been ex-communicated, I’m hopeful that he’ll be more willing to listen to scientists and health providers rather than obsolete religio-whackiness. For example, the term “partial-birth abortion” is total garbage, a sound-bite label made up by the psychotics running around saying every fertilized egg must be forced to be born, but once it’s born, hey, kid, you’re own your own, and good luck with the food and shelter and medical care thing when the woman who was forced to carry you to term was raped and mutilated and has no income.

    There’s NO SUCH THING as “partial-birth abortion.” (Though I could wish that the lying, willfully-stupid nutcases who wail about it had been retroactively aborted, once it was determined that they were little Hitler wanna-bes). Late-term abortions are ALWAYS AND ONLY performed when the mother’s life is in danger, or when the fetus had no chance of survival, such as a friend of mine who carried a very much wanted baby for eight months before tests determined that it had no brain. Not just learning-disabled, mind you — the gray matter inside its skull had no functioning brain cell neurons at all.

    But women’s rights to control of their own bodies is not the top of the agenda for the first hundred days, though I hope he’ll have staffers immediately drafting proposals to overturn the bushdick’s idiotic filthy attacks against women. But half the people in America — and that’s a low-ball estimate — are having to choose between food, rent, and life-saving medication every month. Daschle’s first priority is to overturn the bushdick protectionist policies that allowed Big Pharma to charge whatever they damn well pleased for a ten-cent pill under the excuse of “subsidizing research,” when in fact most of those trillions went to advertising and executive’s pockets.

  • invalid-0

    Two comments.

    Amie asked:

    “Will Tom Daschle Be the Secretary of HHS the Reproductive Rights Community Wants?”
    Well, regardless of whether or not Daschle is what the reproductive rights community wants, it’s apparently what they’re going to get, just as they got Biden for vice-president, who got similar praise from PACs and such in the race earlier this year. That’s in spite of what is probably reasonably stated as fact, namely that some 10-20 years ago or so Biden was considered to be among the most conservative/pro-life/non-pro-choice Senators by a number of measures, including the scorecards from various national pro-choice groups.
    Considering how the battle lines have shifted over the years, and how terms like “pro-choice” and “pro-life” are really rather arbitrary tags to put on one’s values, it makes sense in a way to consider politicians like Biden and Daschle as pro-choice, but they’ve certainly not been in the vanguard of advocacy throughout their careers. One can argue that they’ll be seen as moderate consensus-builders, but seen as such by who? The rank and file voter, including young people, are probably far more concerned about the economy than reproductive choice. Social conservatives who lean towards restricting access to abortion and contraception especially for minors and poor people, and who lean right on a number of other issues not related to choice aren’t going to be swayed much by someone who may sound moderate on abortion but who — as most conservative pundits will be telling them on every right-wing outlet from Rush to Fox News to local papers — are liberal, liberal Democrats on every other issue.
    At some point it might be worth considering, and even advocating to the extent that little voices like ours might make a difference, to look for pro-choice Republicans who might be appointed in some leadership role in committees, if not cabinet positions. Surely if there’s a political realignment as some say that took place in November there might be some main-street Republicans who would be willing to make their presence better known on pro-choice issues. Wouldn’t that help build consensus, as well as potentially give a bit more of a pro-choice balance to forums where Republican voices are especially solicited, like the conservative media outlets mentioned above? Maybe after the Democrats satisfy various interests within the party to pay them back for their loyalty they’ll be more open to something like this.
    And Paul Bradford wrote:
    “Bet you a nickel FOCA never gets signed — I bet it won’t even get read out… ”
    It’s fine with us if we don’t hear another word about FOCA for a year or more. It seems anyway in the last month that anti-choice groups have gotten a lot more mileage out of it’s possible consideration and passage than pro-choice groups have anyway. As most RH Reality Check readers probably know, antis are saying that FOCA is at the top of the new administration’s agenda to pass, and if it passes it will repeal all restrictions on abortion that have been placed since at least the ’92 Casey ruling, if not before (like overturning the Hyde amendment, for example). Oh, and we’ll all finally get the pony promised to us in the last election, and local pro-life groups would find their youth sections conscripted by FOCA to clean up after our ponies.
    Seriously, we can’t imagine FOCA passing in the near future (say a year or so) without amendments and exceptions written in stone allowing, if not guaranteeing, every restriction from waiting periods to mandatory ultrasounds (and mandated scripting of “informed” consent), not to mention parental notification and consent laws. Same thing goes for regulating crisis pregnancy centers – obviously we’d like to see laws enacted to curb some of the excesses they go to in propagandizing against abortion, but if new laws mean essentially licensing and paving the way for greatly increased funding of CPCs – if that’s what it takes to build “consensus”, you can count us out.
    There’s too much potential in bills we know are going to go through in some form like the Prevention First act and serious increases in funding to Title X clinics and increasing access to contraception for all young and poor people. As that potentially could have much more effect in the most conservative states and communities where funding and attention has gone overwhelmingly in recent years to CPCs and abstinence-only sex education, and not to public health clinics and integrating pro-choice health concerns into primary health care, that interests us a lot more than FOCA.
    What could FOCA likely do anyway for a young person living in a county with say one run-down public health clinic, located in the poorest corner of the community, far away from the suburbs that have been built over the last 20 years where most young people live? Some might argue that it would be something significant, but it seems to us it promises nothing as significant as funds that would help hire new clinic staff and promote accessible reproductive health services like can still be found at many Title X clinics, and not just the ones affiliated with the most well-known clinic chains. Something tells us though that arguing for that may be more difficult than it sounds, as that’s something that would have an effect in areas that have long been the turf of most of the CPCs in the country. Expanding comprehensive, pro-choice health services in their backyards – real SERVICES, and not just incrementally improved “reality-based” sex education — would be a fight, maybe a more difficult fight than one that would win passage of FOCA in some amended, watered-down form.

  • travon

    Health problems are seen all across our country, as well as other countries. It seems like everywhere you turn, there’s a story about how unhealthy Americans are today. Obesity and diabetes are some of the major health issues we see. Both are, no doubt, on the rise among both adults and children. Health care is important in order to keep us healthy. There are some people that they just take for granted the status of their health. But in doing so it would leave us a major strain in budget if we were going to acquire sickness. One of the things that can send a person running for payday loans is medical expenses.  Offsetting a costly deductible isn’t easy, especially if your health insurance doesn’t cover a non-routine trip to the ER.  That’s where a lot of people think about getting payday loans.  What if you lose your job?  What do you do about health insurance then?  You can set yourself up with COBRA.  COBRA is a program where you can take on the full cost of health insurance for up to 18 months.  It isn’t cheap, but it’s better than nothing, and if you don’t have coverage you will need payday loans for a penicillin script.

  • invalid-0

    Daschle would have been great at it – if he could have handled his bloody taxes! There is quite frankly a serious need to get on the ball with sex ed. I hate to be the next – in a long line – to inform the Christian lobby, but this is the 21st century and the facts are that abstinence ed only doesn’t work, and it leads to bad ideas that hurt people – specifically when you have children born to children themselves (ie. Bristol Palin), which results in a lot of poverty and misery when it could have been avoided by letting teens know that it is OK to use a condom. Not to mention a few other things, such as the fact that abortion is here to stay, like it or not. The Roman empire used an entire plant species off the face of the planet because it was so good at it, and if we don’t have a viable and legal way of providing it, people will turn to illegal methods. It’s a pity the child care and sex ed portion of the stimulus bill was removed.