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A year after Dobbs ruling, lawmakers reflect on impact

Female lawmakers say they have faced a reckoning

Supporters and opponents of abortion rights shout each other down with megaphones outside of the Supreme Court as they wait for the court to hand down its decision on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization to overturn Roe v. Wade on June 21, 2022.
Supporters and opponents of abortion rights shout each other down with megaphones outside of the Supreme Court as they wait for the court to hand down its decision on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization to overturn Roe v. Wade on June 21, 2022. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Saturday marks the one-year anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization — a ruling that overturned the national right to abortion. 

The decision has sparked a flurry of state legislative efforts, advocacy, litigation and a resurgence of decades-old abortion policies. It has also spurred federal pushes to set national rights to or limits on abortion.

Five women in the House and Senate spanning the political spectrum shared both how the ruling impacted them personally and professionally, and what they hope will happen next.

Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth conducts a news conference after the Senate luncheons in the Capitol on March 15. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill. 

Duckworth recalls the shock she felt when the decision dropped, despite knowing it was coming.

The combat veteran is especially worried about the effects on military women and families, in part due to ongoing efforts by Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., to block Pentagon promotions because of the military’s policy allowing servicemembers to travel to seek reproductive care.

“It’s just astounding to me,” she said, adding women are assigned to duty stations and cannot easily leave to seek care without the policy.

The issue is especially personal because Duckworth did her flight training at Fort Novosel in Alabama, a state that now bans most abortions.

Duckworth, who in 2018 became the first sitting senator to give birth, has spoken publicly about using in vitro fertilization and noted it’s an aspect of reproductive health care that also needs attention.

Since the decision, she said she’s become more vocal about having a miscarriage at nine weeks and needing a procedure known as dilation and curettage to start a new round of IVF.

“We had to clear my uterus in order for me to start a new round of IVF. If I didn’t have access to a D&C I couldn’t have done that,” she said, recalling she has heard from increasing numbers of women in similar situations who now can’t access the procedure.

“I’m just even more determined now than I was a year ago,” she said.

Illinois Rep. Robin Kelly speaks during the Congressional Black Caucus news conference in the Capitol on Oct. 27, 2021. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Ill.

Kelly, a longtime advocate for reducing maternal health disparities, called the post-Dobbs landscape “very scary.”

“My daughter and my stepdaughters don’t have the rights that I had, which doesn’t make any sense. We’ve definitely taken many, many, many steps back,” she said.

Black and indigenous women die from pregnancy at rates two to three times as high as white women, and the Illinois Democrat said she worries the Dobbs decision is going to worsen those disparities. 

“It makes me fight harder, not to be deterred in any way, especially as a Black female legislator,” said Kelly, who co-chairs the Bipartisan Maternity Caucus. 

Kelly said bipartisan caucus and committee work on maternal health tends to avoid delving into abortion rights.

“You have to dance around things,” she said. “When it comes to issues around choice, we’re not even talking about how that affects maternal mortality.”

Her home state was the first to expand postpartum Medicaid coverage from 60 days to a year, and is considered a safe haven state for women traveling to seek abortions. But she also worries about safe haven states becoming overwhelmed with traveling patients and the plight of women in other states or rural areas who cannot travel to seek care. 

“I just wish that people would realize, you know, how much this is affecting women, affecting families, affecting prenatal [and] postnatal care, just so many things,” said Kelly.

South Carolina Rep. Nancy Mace leaves a meeting of the House Republican Conference in the Capitol on June 6. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C.

Mace is an anomaly among her Republican colleagues: While she celebrated the fall of Roe v. Wade, she has bucked her party to advocate for access to birth control.

“Certainly pre- versus post-Roe, the environment has completely changed. My question today is what are we going to do in the 118th Congress for women,” said Mace, who hopes to balance “the rights of women and also the right to life.”

The South Carolina Republican remains opposed to abortion but sees an opportunity post-Dobbs to be a strong voice for other women’s issues.

“As a woman, as a suburban mom, as a single mom, a divorced mom with two teenage kids — I want to see us show some compassion towards women,” said Mace, who acknowledged she takes “positions that not everybody wants to be put in.”

“I want to see us show some compassion towards women, especially girls who are victims of incest, women who are victims of rape. What are we doing to protect those women and girls?” said Mace, who has spoken publicly about dropping out of high school after she herself was raped.

Last year, Mace was one of seven Republicans to vote to codify the right to contraception.

“If you’re going to ban abortion, then you’ve got to make sure every woman, regardless of their ZIP code, has access to birth control,” said Mace, pointing to a 2022 South Carolina law that allows pharmacists to prescribe contraception. “There are just things that we should be encouraging at the state and federal level to make happen.”

Since Dobbs, she’s introduced her own contraceptives bill, worked on adoption services legislation and co-sponsored a bill that seeks to permanently ban federal funding for abortion. She’s also working to file bills related to foster care and rape kits. More recently she and Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., formed the Bipartisan Affordable Childcare Caucus.

“The other thing that resonates too is if you’re going to force women to carry babies, then what are we going to do to help them take care of those babies?” she said.

Iowa Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks speaks during the House GOP news conference on Jan. 11, 2022. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, R-Iowa

A year after the decision, Miller-Meeks remains committed to the next steps to support women throughout the process.

“I was surprised at the level of vitriol directed towards pro-life individuals, saying that we were opposed to contraception,” said Miller-Meeks. “I certainly understand that there’s anxieties on both sides of this issue and concerns, which is why both as a woman and as a nurse and a physician, I have continued to try to educate.”

That education extends to her family, she said, noting she and her husband educated both her children on how to prevent pregnancies.

While in the Iowa state Senate, she introduced legislation to expand access to over-the-counter birth control and helped to introduce a Republican contraceptives bill in the House twice since the decision. 

“If all you’re talking about is abortion, that really undermines the fact that women have a variety of options, and also a responsibility as do men in this scenario,” said Miller-Meeks, who does support abortion exceptions in cases of rape and incest or a threat to the mother’s life. 

The Iowa Republican said she began working at age 16, and was a working mom, which informed her support as a member of the Bipartisan Working Group on Paid Leave.

“I think the most important thing we do is to raise good children,” she said.

Washington Sen. Patty Murray speaks in her office in the Russell Building on May 3. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

Murray, the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, has made protecting reproductive health a foundation of her 30-year career in Congress, but the Dobbs decision ignited a new fire for her.

“Everyone needs to have this as a priority,” she said. “We have to make sure that everything we do focuses on getting to a point in this country where we restore Roe.”

The Senate president pro tempore said 22 million women live in states with bans or severe restrictions on abortion that were not there a year ago. Battling them is a top priority, she said.

“Obviously, we can’t get that today, probably even in the next year or two. But I can say that there’s a number of things that I believe Republicans ought to support, do support and should be supporting,” said Murray, pointing to bills that would protect contraception rights, interstate travel for health care and access to reproductive technology.

This week, she and other Senate Democrats called for unanimous support to consider and pass multiple abortion rights bills. The efforts were blocked.

“I can tell you, personally, that someone very close to this office had a horrific health issue impact because of a pregnancy miscarriage and couldn’t get access to health care,” said Murray.

She said she hears from women who are frustrated they can make choices about their careers and expenses, but not their health care. “It’s just a hit on women that they just did not expect.”

“This is not an issue you can be quiet about. This is something that you can’t just say ‘Oh, it’ll never happen.’ We saw it happen. Roe was overturned,” said Murray.

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