(Headline USA) Voting mostly along party lines, the U.S. Senate on Wednesday confirmed former Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine to be the nation’s assistant secretary of health.
Levine is the first openly transgender federal official to win Senate confirmation.
The final vote was 52-48. Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine joined all Democrats in supporting Levine.
Levine had been serving as Pennsylvania’s top health official since 2017, and emerged as the public face of the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, including widespread criticism for the state’s draconian—and ineffective—lock-down policies.
Joining Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, a trial attorney by trade with limited experience in the health field, the focus on Levine’s identity group over her experience and qualifications raised deep alarms as the nation strives to recover from the coronavirus pandemic.
President Joe Biden sugarcoated the situation, however, saying that Levine “will bring the steady leadership and essential expertise we need to get people through this pandemic—no matter their zip code, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.”
Amid a growing push to insist on cultural and political acceptance of the transgender movement, some Republican legislatures and other concerned groups have balked at initiatives like the push to allow biologically male athletes to compete on women’s sports teams.
Issues related to transgender rights also are a major factor in Republican opposition to the proposed Equality Act, which would extend federal civil rights protections to LGBTQ people across the U.S., opening new avenues for costly compliance litigation to accommodate a largely arbitrary and personal choice with no defining standards for who qualifies.
The measure has passed the Democratic-led House but likely needs some GOP votes to prevail in the Senate.
“At a time when hateful politicians are weaponizing trans lives for their own perceived political gain, Dr. Levine’s confirmation lends focus to the contributions trans people make to our nation,” said former Houston Mayor Annise Parker, president of the LGBTQ Victory Institute.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who voted no, had confronted Levine about medical treatments for transgender young people—include hormone treatment and puberty blockers—during a confirmation hearing on Feb. 25.
“Do you believe that minors are capable of making such a life-changing decision as changing one’s sex?” Paul asked.
Levine replied that transgender medicine “is a very complex and nuanced field with robust research and standards of care.”
In the past, Levine has asserted that hormone therapy and puberty-blocking drugs can be valuable medical tools in sparing some transgender youth from mental distress and possible suicide risk.
The confirmation vote was assailed by the conservative Family Research Council, which contended that Levine, in addition to supporting transgender procedures for children, had backed “a variety of pro-abortion and anti-religious freedom proposals” while serving as Pennsylvania’s health secretary.
“Levine may be the most extreme radical ever confirmed by the Senate,” said Travis Weber, the council’s vice president for policy and government affairs.
Even Sen. Pat Toomey, a centrist Pennsylvania Republican, voted against Levine’s confirmation Wednesday, criticizing a track-record of policy failures.
“In Pennsylvania, the pandemic struck seniors in nursing homes disproportionately hard compared to other states,” Toomey said. “This was due in part to poor decisions and oversight by Dr. Levine and the Wolf administration.”
He also said an extended lockdown advocated by Levine “was excessive, arbitrary in nature, and has led to a slower recovery.”
Adapted from reporting by the Associated Press