As organizations on both sides of the abortion issue have shifted to a war footing ahead of the confirmation battle to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court, President Donald Trump has gone out of his way to assure voters that abortion access should be the furthest thing from their mind.
“You don’t know what’s on the ballot,” Trump told—well, interrupted—former Vice President Joe Biden during the first presidential debate last Tuesday, when the Democratic nominee said that the right to abortion is “at stake” with the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to replace Ginsburg.
“Why is it on the ballot? Why is it on the ballot?” Trump said, as anti-abortion organization Created Equal flew airplane banners and held a protest outside the debate hall in Cleveland to emphasize that abortion was on the ballot. “I don’t think so. There’s nothing happening there. You don’t know her view on Roe v. Wade.”
But though Trump, likely wary of alienating the pro-choice white suburban women who helped nudge him to victory in 2016, has made nary a single mention of abortion after Ginsburg’s death, groups and individuals that have long advocated for the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade and other judicial protections for abortion are positive that Barrett is their ideal justice-in-waiting.
“I think her record’s awfully clear,” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told reporters on Capitol Hill last week, breaking the longstanding tradition of using an inside voice when describing ideological litmus tests for a named nominee. “She meets my standard of having evidence in the record, out there in public, on the record, that indicates that she understands that Roe was really an act of judicial imperialism that was wrongly decided, and I think her record of all the people being considered, the president considered, I think her record was by far the clearest on that.”
“I think the pro-life movement is pretty universally thrilled,” said Eric Scheidler, executive director of the Pro-Life Action League and a second-generation anti-abortion activist. Scheidler told The Daily Beast that abortion opponents view Barrett as the most explicit fulfillment of Trump’s 2016 campaign promise that his Supreme Court nominees would “automatically” roll back Roe’s constitutional guarantee to abortion access nationwide—even if a full repeal of Roe might be a reach.
“The chances of Roe actually being overturned are pretty remote,” Scheidler said, even with a 6-3 conservative majority on the Court. More important, Scheidler added, are cases regarding admitting privileges and parental notification currently winding their way through the federal court system that could potentially chip away at Roe.
Those cases, Scheidler said, would “really directly contradict Roe v. Wade but would still be, under the Planned Parenthood v. Casey test, would still be enforceable, so I think it’s far more important.”
“I think this is probably really what President Trump was getting at,” Scheidler said. “These are strange times and who knows what’s gonna happen next, but what I’m really interested in, what I’m excited about, is that Barrett would have the opportunity to rule on other issues that matter to us in the pro-life community.”
The Susan B. Anthony List, for example, which works to elect political candidates who are opposed to abortion, has already re-launched a coalition of more than 70 national and statewide groups to contact members of the U.S. Senate ahead of Barrett’s confirmation. The group has set a goal of reaching eight million voters with a message highlighting “the importance of the president’s commitments to the pro-life movement and his achievements,” said Mallory Quigley, Susan B. Anthony List’s vice president of communications.
But while the sight of Supreme Court nominees declining to tell Senate Judiciary Committee members their personal views on abortion despite everyone involved basically understanding their feelings on the matter is as regular as swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano, Barrett’s past public support for the full repeal of Roe has supporters of abortion access deeply concerned.
Last week, The Daily Beast and the Guardian reported that Barrett had signed a letter in 2006 calling for the end of Roe v. Wade, denouncing the ruling as “barbaric.”
“The Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion for any reason,” read the letter, which both Barrett and her husband signed. “It’s time to put an end to the barbaric legacy of Roe v. Wade and restore laws that protect the lives of unborn children.”
With that clear of a record, at least in regards to her personal views, abortion-access advocates told The Daily Beast that Barrett is sending the strongest possible signal to abortion opponents that Trump is hoping to make good on his campaign promise from four years ago—even if he’d prefer not to discuss it today.
“I think we need to be clear about the fact that abortion is on the ballot. It is on the ballot,” said Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, who told The Daily Beast on a call with reporters about Barrett’s record on abortion that there are already two cases “basically at the Supreme Court,” including Mississippi’s efforts to ban abortion after six weeks of pregnancy—a time before many women first realize they are pregnant.
“The reason Trump said that is because he knows he's on the wrong side of history and the wrong side of voters and therefore he—I call it gaslighting—he says one thing to one audience and another to the other,” Hogue said. “And we’re not fooled.”
“We know that there are cases working their way through the lower court systems,” echoed Alexis McGill Johnson, president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund. “Right now there are a total of 17 cases, one step away from the Supreme Court.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee who will be questioning Barrett once she reaches the hearing stage of the confirmation fight, told The Daily Beast that “we are at a point of real threat to reproductive rights,” regardless of the president’s statements.
“There’s just no question that abortion is on the ballot reproductive rights are on the ballot,” Blumenthal said. “Every one of my colleagues knows it. And it is on the ballot, not only for the presidential campaign—it’s on the ballot at every level that we have elected officials.”