Abortion rights likely at center of debate over next Supreme Court nominee

Renee-Lauren Ellis, a Washington, D.C.-area attorney, says, "It's dire that something as fundamental as what I do with my body is up for debate still, in 2020."
Renee-Lauren Ellis, a Washington, D.C.-area attorney, says, "It's dire that something as fundamental as what I do with my body is up for debate still, in 2020."
Sarah McCammon/NPR

With her 14-month-old daughter on her hip, Anna Lashley, an attorney from Washington, D.C., came to pay her last respects to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the Supreme Court on Saturday.

"I just can't wait to tell my daughter about her, and teach her about the lessons she taught me, and what she did for women," Lashley said.

Now, with a vacancy on the court left by Ginsburg's death, President Trump appears poised to name his third Supreme Court nominee in less than four years — tilting the court even further to the right than its 5-4 conservative majority that existed until Friday.

"I'm terrified for women in this country," Lashley said. "I'm very concerned about what it will mean for Roe v. Wade going forward. I'm worried that other people aren't going to be able to take up the fight that she did for us."

Without Ginsburg's reliable liberal vote and her consistent voice for reproductive rights, Renee-Lauren Ellis has similar fears about the future of the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide in 1973. Ellis, who's also a lawyer in the D.C. area, said she's afraid of what she sees as the potential to go backward.

"It's dire that something as fundamental as what I do with my body is up for debate still, in 2020," Ellis said.

Ginsburg's death sets up a divisive nomination fight in the midst of a presidential campaign. And advocates on opposing sides of the issue agree that it could be a turning point in the long-running debate over one of the most divisive issues for the court: abortion rights.

For those opposed to abortion rights, a Supreme Court vacancy just weeks before a presidential election also marks a pivot point.

"For the pro-life movement and the work that we do there, this is the moment that we've been building towards," said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion rights group the Susan B. Anthony List, which has spent years working to elect Republican senators and confirm conservative judges and has staunchly supported Trump and his judicial nominees.

Dannenfelser says she and her family happened to be sitting outside the Supreme Court on Friday evening when they heard the news of Ginsburg's death.

"It was such a sense of profound meaning that we felt in her passing, and also a moment of change," she said. "That in this place that we're sitting will be the pivot point of change in our country."

Planned Parenthood Action Fund President Alexis McGill Johnson agrees there's a lot at stake.

"The fate of our rights, our freedoms, our health care, our bodies, our lives, our country, literally depends on what happens over the coming months," McGill Johnson said.

Groups that support abortion rights, including Planned Parenthood and NARAL, say they'll be working to apply pressure to potentially vulnerable Republican senators facing reelection now or in 2022, demanding they wait to confirm a replacement for Ginsburg until after the November election.

McGill Johnson notes that four years ago, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell famously refused to hold hearings to consider President Obama's nominee to replace Justice Antonin Scalia. At that time, the presidential election was more than eight months away, and McConnell argued it was too close. Now, with the election about six weeks away, McConnell is promising to work quickly to confirm a Trump nominee.

"Mitch McConnell keeps making up the rules to suit his desires and his will to maintain power," McGill Johnson said. "In a democracy it's really important that we all play by the same rules."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.