U.S. Representative Louise Slaughter (D-New York) has died at age 88 after having suffered a fall earlier in the week. She was the oldest sitting member of Congress; when she took her Congressional seat in 1987, she was one of just 29 women in the House of Representatives. Her legacy includes important contributions to women’s rights and public health.
As a founding member and co-chair of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus, Slaughter fought for reproductive rights, co-sponsoring legislation like the EACH Woman Act (which would lift prohibitions on insurance coverage of abortion, to ensure women’s choices don’t depend on income) and denouncing the many recent efforts to further limit women’s access to reproductive healthcare. She was a leading co-sponsor of the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. She was one of the original authors of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, and used the law’s 20th anniversary in 2014 to reflect both on its achievements and the work left to do:
“Authoring the Violence Against Women Act is one of the most important things I have done as a member of Congress, and twenty years later, I am proud to see that it has substantially reduced the incidence of domestic violence and empowered survivors to speak out. VAWA turned domestic violence from private suffering into public outrage,” Rep. Slaughter said. “Today, we celebrate the success of VAWA with the solemn recognition that there is more work to do. Almost two million Americans are still physically assaulted, sexually assaulted, or stalked by an intimate partner every year. I won’t stop fighting until that number is zero.”
… Statistics demonstrate that VAWA has been a major success. Since 1994, the annual incidence of domestic violence has fallen by two-thirds, and reporting of domestic violence has increased by as much as 51 percent. Over one million women have obtained protective orders against their abusers. The National Domestic Violence Hotline receives 22,000 calls every month from abused or threatened partners seeking help, with federal programs in place to meet their needs. Countless children have been removed from harmful situations, breaking the generational cycle of violence.
As chair of the influential House Rules Committee starting in 2007 — a post she was the first woman to hold — Slaughter played a key role in passage of the Affordable Care Act. Her work on military and veterans’ health issues included improving standards for body armor, authoring an amendment requiring the Pentagon to establish comprehensive procedures to address sexual assault in the military, and securing appropriations for the Department of Defense’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response office.
Before winning her seat in Congress, Slaughter earned an undergraduate degree in microbiology and a master of public health degree. This background positioned her to understand the importance of funding and conducting research appropriately. Slaughter led the effort to establish the NIH’s Office of Research on Women’s Health and pass the NIH Revitalization Act of 1993, which required that NIH-funded clinical research include women and minorities as participants. She also secured the first $500 million in earmarked funds for NIH breast cancer research. In 1998, the American Public Health Association awarded her its Distinguished Public Health Legislator Award.
One of Slaughter’s signature achievements is the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act (GINA), which she authored and saw signed into law in 2008 — more than a decade after she first introduced legislation barring genetic discrimination in 1995. GINA prohibits employers and insurers from discriminating based on results of genetic testing, and in doing so reduces a barrier to participation in genomics-based research.
Often noting her qualification as “the only microbiologist in Congress,” Slaughter led efforts to address the growing threat of antibiotic resistance. The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, for which she was the primary sponsor in every Congress since 2007, would ban food animal production’s non-therapeutic uses of antibiotics that are important for human health.
The Democrat & Chronicle, Representative Slaughter’s local paper, reported reactions from those who worked with Slaughter in Monroe County and the Rochester area. Here’s one of them:
Former Brighton town supervisor Sandy Frankel not only considered Slaughter to be a vital political ally, but also a personal friend.
“We all loved Louise and her passing is a real loss personally, and to our community and our country as well,” she said. “She was a woman who was a role model, a leader, an inspiration for me and so many others.”
Frankel said Slaughter had boundless compassion for her constituents and community and never faltered in her fight.
“I would see her embracing victims of crime, mothers who lost children; her compassion and caring was on her sleeve,” she said. “But at the same time, she had a spine of steel to stand strong and fight for what she believed in and what she thought would be good for our community.
“She was a fighter for women’s rights, for working men and women, for the labor movement, for health care privacy and accessible, affordable health care for all and so much more.”
Women’s rights advocates and the public health community have lost a strong champion in Congress, but Representative Louise Slaughter’s legacy will live on.