By George B. Kauffman
Louise M. Slaughter (D–NY) died on March 16 (1929–2018) at the age of 88, the oldest sitting member of Congress, serving her 16th term in the House of Representatives. She was elected to the U.S. 100th Congress in 1986, Slaughter fought for the health and safety of all Americans, with a special dedication to women’s issues.
Slaughter was born in Harlan County, Kentucky, graduated from the University of Kentucky with a bachelor’s degree in microbiology (1951) and a master’s degree in public health (1953). Her academic choices were a response to the death of her sister from pneumonia as a young child. She married Richard Slaughter in 1957, but the couple divorced in 2014. She served in the local county legislature and New York State Assembly before she was elected to Congress.
An outstanding advocate for women, Slaughter coauthored many pieces of legislation to confront and rectify inequities in women’s health, safety and job security. At a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Health and the Environment on June 18, 1990, the General Accounting Office provided overwhelming evidence that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) was not including women in clinical trials. In response to this shortcoming, Slaughter helped draft the National Institutes of Health Revitalization Act of 1993, which provided for the establishment of the NIH Office of Research on Women’s Health and guidelines for the inclusion of women and minorities in clinical research.
She also made a well-informed, forceful effort to persuade research communities to include women in clinical trials, a necessity for improving the health of women. The law was not passed under the George H. W. Bush administration, but it was quickly enacted in early 1993 under President Bill Clinton.
In 1994, Slaughter coauthored the Violence Against Women Act, the intent of which was to combat all forms of violence toward women, including stalking and physical and sexual abuse. In another forward-looking step, she began in 1995 to press for the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, which aimed to prevent employers and insurers from discriminating based on predispositions to diseases identified by genetic tests. This law was finally enacted in 2008.
Slaughter was a member of the House Budget Committee and rose to be chair of the powerful Rules Committee. In 1991 and 1992, she was the only Democratic woman on either of these committees, and she worked in conjunction with women’s groups to get women’s health research funded. Her persistence ensured that in 1996 more than $526 million was earmarked for women’s health, especially breast cancer research.
Slaughter joined the bipartisan Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues in her first term and in 1993 became chair of its Task Force on Women’s Health. She was serving as co-chair of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus when she died.
Slaughter was a passionate advocate of Title IX and challenges faced by women in the military. Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 is a federal law that states: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
Slaughter never wavered in her support of Title IX of the Education Act and issues related to girls and women in athletic activities. As recently as last year, she introduced legislation to strengthen Title IX. The legislation created a series of steps to handle gender issues in federally funded institutions.
Beginning in 2009, the Society for Women’s Health Research (SWHR) worked with Slaughter on healthcare for U.S. servicewomen. In 2013, she introduced an important piece of legislation: The Military Access to Reproductive Care and Health (MARCH) for Military Women Act. If passed, the legislation would help female military personnel by abolishing the ban on abortions at military hospitals.
Florence Haseltine, emerita scientist at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, first met Slaughter in 1990 when she was working with others passionate about women’s health to form the SWHR. They met with the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues and had many working lunches during which they exchanged information and views.
A good and active listener, Slaughter would quickly summarize information, ask pointed questions and indicate where she thought legislation could help. She knew that Haseltine worked at the NIH on reproductive health issues and frequently asked about what NIH was doing to fund exciting research in that area.
Slaughter knew everyone who was working for women’s health. As a woman physician, a specialist in obstetrics and gynecology, and a scientist and researcher, Haseltine was committed to improving women’s health, but it was unusual and heartening to meet a legislator who felt the same way.
Slaughter gave her full support to the SWHR, along with many other advocacy organizations. She worked to push Congress for more funding, often asked for their input, and facilitated alliances among organizations seeking to improve women’s health.
Slaughter’s legacy is broad and significant, and the SWHR, the National Breast Cancer Coalition and many others owe her a large debt. Her personal success in Congress, her deep understanding of the importance of health issues and her commitment to women’s health have changed our nation for the better.
It is a tragedy that Slaughter fell at home and died several days later. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated that falls are a leading cause of injury and death in older Americans and that women fall more often than men. It is up to us to fight for more research into the cause and prevention of falls in our senior population because, as Slaughter would have said, it is the “smart thing to do.”
George B. Kauffman, Ph.D., chemistry professor emeritus at Fresno State and a Guggenheim Fellow, is a recipient of the American Chemical Society’s George C. Pimentel Award in Chemical Education, the Helen M. Free Award for Public Outreach and the Award for Research at an Undergraduate Institution, and numerous domestic and international honors. In 2002 and 2011, he was appointed a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Chemical Society, respectively.