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House Judiciary Committee debates future of abortion rights

Hearing offers a preview of the explosive debates in Congress and statehouses if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade

From left, Reps. Darrell Issa, Dan Bishop, Ken Buck and Jim Jordan attend a House Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday with photos of protesters outside the homes of Supreme Court Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Amy Coney Barrett.
From left, Reps. Darrell Issa, Dan Bishop, Ken Buck and Jim Jordan attend a House Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday with photos of protesters outside the homes of Supreme Court Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Amy Coney Barrett. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The House Judiciary Committee contemplated the overturning of Roe v. Wade at a hearing Wednesday, where doctors testified about the potential for prosecution of miscarriages, one House member told an unusually personal story of her pregnancies and Republicans called for the end of “abortion on demand.”

The hearing, in response to a leaked draft ruling that indicated the Supreme Court would overturn the 1973 decision that first established the right to an abortion, offered a preview of the explosive debates in Congress and statehouses across the country if the justices ultimately rule that way.

Democrats, including Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., argued that overturning the Roe decision would put the country back in a world where rich families could travel for abortions but the poor could not.

“We’ve got an effort to outlaw abortion in all 50 states, and to do it by congressional law, if possible, and if the Senate and the House become Republican, that will happen,” Cohen said.

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, and other Republicans on the panel repeatedly argued abortion has ended more than 60 million lives since the 1973 decision.

“You can’t pursue happiness if you first don’t have liberty, and you never have real liberty, you never have true freedom, if government won’t protect your most fundamental right — your right to live,” Jordan said.

The hearing comes after a leaked draft majority opinion in the challenge to Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban, which the Supreme Court is set to rule on by the end of the term at the end of June. The draft, authored by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. in February, would overturn Roe and essentially leave abortion regulation up to the states.

The draft also injected tough questions about one of the most intractable subjects in American politics into the midterm elections and congressional debate. Both chambers of Congress are closely divided, and Republicans have faced calls to do away with the Senate filibuster to pass such a ban under a Republican president if they take control of Congress.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told USA Today earlier this month that a national ban is “possible,” but he acknowledged it would have trouble passing a closely divided Senate.

Getting personal

The hearing’s most intense moment came when Rep. Lucy McBath, D-Ga., shared her struggles with pregnancy and several miscarriages she suffered while trying to have a child. It was a warning of sorts to Republicans who would push for more abortion regulations.

“After which failed pregnancy should I have been imprisoned?” McBath said. “Would it have been after the first miscarriage? After doctors used what would be an illegal drug to abort the lost fetus? Would you have put me in jail after the second miscarriage?”

Dr. Yashica Robinson, an obstetrician and gynecologist in Alabama, said the state may go further than its current 20-week abortion ban or even adopt a model similar to the latest abortion law in Texas. That law allows private citizens to sue anyone who performs or aids in the performance of an abortion.

“The truth is, as more states enact abortion restrictions and attempt to ban abortion entirely, patients and providers will be put in untenable situations,” Robinson said.

Catherine Glenn Foster, president and CEO of Americans United For Life, and Republicans on the panel argued that states would go further. Foster said the Supreme Court should hold all abortions as unlawful and she supports congressional efforts to ban the procedure.

“Abortion is fundamentally unjust. Abortion deprives our brothers and sisters of the equal protection of the laws,” Foster said. “Abortion turns equals into unequals, it empowers the strong at the expense of the vulnerable and it makes us all less human, and less humane, along the way.”

Foster analogized abortion to slavery and said the country had to confront the “violence of abortion,” and she claimed without evidence that aborted fetuses are used to generate power in Washington, D.C.

In an atypical dynamic, panel members engaged in tense exchanges with witnesses of the opposite side. Republican members like Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, pushed Robinson on the details of second-trimester abortions.

“Have you had baby parts that you have had to discard or store in some capacity?” Roy said.

“One of the things you have done throughout this hearing is use inflammatory language,” Robinson replied.

“Ma’am, it is a simple question. Have you had human parts — baby parts, arms, legs — as a result of an abortion performed at the time you just acknowledged?” Roy asked.

“I am a physician and an abortion provider,” Robinson said.

“You don’t want to talk about the reality of what actually transpired,” Roy said later.

Institutional concerns

Members on both sides of the aisle bemoaned the decline of democratic institutions, citing the leak, protests outside of justices’ homes and Republican efforts to appoint preferred justices to the high court.

Republican members like Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana called it “profoundly damaging” to the country’s institutions to hold a hearing over a currently pending Supreme Court case.

“Democrats are engaging in a brazen attempt here to intimidate and bully the justices of the Supreme Court as they consider a challenge to Mississippi’s pro-life law,” Johnson said. “The fact that we would be here trying to influence a pending opinion is unprecedented and dangerous to our institutions.”

The committee’s chair, New York Democratic Rep. Jerrold Nadler, pushed back on Republican arguments regarding the leak, calling it a “problem” but not the biggest issue.

“But I will not be lectured on how best to protect democratic institutions from the crowd that cheered on the mob on Jan. 6 of last year and continues to perpetuate a gross lie about the last election,” Nadler said.

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