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It will likely be months before we know whether the conservative U.S. Supreme Court will vote to weaken or overturn Roe v. Wade. But, during oral arguments in a case involving a Mississippi law that bans abortion after 15 weeks, several justices telegraphed that they may have no problem gutting the nearly 50-year-old law that enshrined a women’s right to abortion services into federal law.
Such a court decision would leave a woman’s rights up to the whim of lawmakers in her state. Nearly every state has some restrictions on abortion services and more than 100 new ones have been added just this year. Abortion restrictions disproportionately harm poor women and women of color.
This should be untenable to anyone who believes that everyone in America deserves the same fundamental rights and protections, regardless of their gender and where they live.
Sen. Susan Collins, who has long supported a woman’s right to choose, says she supports federal legislation to protect this right. Such legislation, the Women’s Health Protection Act, was passed by the U.S. House in September. The bill would prohibit restrictions “that are more burdensome than those restrictions imposed on medically comparable procedures, do not significantly advance reproductive health or the safety of abortion services, and make abortion services more difficult to access.”
The bill, which includes language condemning racism and white supremacy, has almost no chance of passing the closely divided Senate.
“Unfortunately, the House Democrats’ bill goes far beyond codifying Roe and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, and I do not support it,” Collins said in a statement to the BDN editorial board. Casey is a 1992 Supreme Court ruling that affirmed a women’s right to abortion services but added some restrictions.“For example, [the House-passed] legislation would severely weaken protections afforded to health care providers who refuse to perform abortions on religious or moral grounds. Rather than just codifying Roe’s protections, the House bill would undercut laws that have been in place for decades and call into question basic conscience protections that Americans rely upon.”
Despite these concerns Collins has continued to work on federal legislation to protect abortion rights.
“I believe that the protections in the Roe and Casey decisions should be enacted into law,” she said in the statement. “I have had some conversations with my colleagues about this, and I am hopeful there will be further discussions. Specifically, Sen. Patty Murray reached out to me in September because she heard that I was interested in developing legislation that would codify Roe and Casey. Shortly after, I sent her a draft bill that would do just that. So far, there has been very little progress in response.”
“If we are unable to work out a bipartisan bill, I would consider introducing such legislation on my own,” Collins added.
That work takes on new urgency after last week’s Supreme Court hearing.
Collins is in the spotlight because she was seen as a pivotal vote in the 50-48 Senate confirmation tally in 2018 that put Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court. Before voting to confirm Kavanaugh, Collins said he had assured her he viewed Roe v. Wade as settled law.
Those assurances seemed to have faded by Wednesday as Kavanaugh suggested that overruling precedent that was wrong is an important part of the court’s history: “If you think about some of the most important cases, the most consequential cases in this court’s history, there’s a string of them where the cases overruled precedent.”
According to the Associated Press, he cited cases that extended rights beyond where they were previously, including those that outlawed segregation and said gay couples have a right to marry. “If we think that the prior precedents are seriously wrong … why then doesn’t the history of this court’s practice with respect to those cases tell us that the right answer is actually a return to the position of neutrality and — and not stick with those precedents in the same way that all those other cases didn’t?”
A major difference between the cases Kavanaugh cited and the Mississippi case is that in the instances of segregation and LGBTQ rights, the court overturned precedent to extend those rights. In the case of abortion, the court’s conservative majority seems OK with overruling precedent to restrict women’s rights. That would be a new direction for the court that could threaten other rights.
The Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling in the Mississippi case in June. Members of Congress who support abortion rights could wisely use the time until then to craft legislation that will protect those rights in case the court votes to pare them back or gut them.