While the world was focused on impeachment, the GOP’s ongoing effort to stock the federal bench with conservative ideologues proceeded apace last week with Sarah Pitlyk, a nominee for the district court in the eastern part of Missouri, whose opposition to reproductive rights goes far beyond the standard fare of rolling back Roe v Wade.
She will, once confirmed as expected, forge new frontiers defending “personhood” of embryos and opposing in vitro fertilization and surrogacy.
In her hearing Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee—it didn’t vote on her that day; the vote is pending—Democrats asked about her opposition to reproductive technology, and whether she could be fair to people who came into her courtroom with very different views.
“My personal views have no role in my place as a judge,” she said in response to a question from Democrat Mazie Hirono, who cited Pitlyk’s “strongly held views” as expressed in several amicus briefs.
While at Runnymede Law Group, a St. Louis-based law firm, Pitlyk argued in a 2015 custody case over frozen embryos that they should be considered human beings under the law. After losing the case, she said the trial court’s judgment “treated the embryonic children as inanimate objects, not human beings with the same interests as other unborn children.”
She said the existing children of her client, a woman who sought the right to several frozen embryos created with her ex-husband, would “have to navigate the murky psychological waters of knowing that they had similarly situated siblings who died at the hand of their father.”
The American Bar Association rated Pitlyk “not qualified,” which Republican Ted Cruz dismissed as a biased judgment from a partisan “mouthpiece,” citing Pitlyk’s degrees from Boston College and Georgetown, and her Yale law degree.
Democrat Dick Durbin followed up with an explanation for the ABA’s negative rating, which is the absence of any real trial record. In a series of questions that exposed the paucity of her relevant experience, she responded “no” to whether she had ever tried a civil or criminal case, cross-examined a witness, taken a deposition, or chosen a jury. “As we go out to hire people to engage them to represent us, the first thing we look for is experience,” Durbin said. “You’re asking for a lifetime appointment as a trial court judge. There are many things I think you would be excellent at, your background says that. This is not one of them.”
Pitlyk is a special counsel at the Thomas More Society, a pro-life law firm that advocates for religious freedom. She was part of the firm’s team that defended undercover activist David Daleiden, who filmed and selectively edited videos to accuse Planned Parenthood of fetal tissue trafficking back in 2015.
The charges against Planned Parenthood were debunked—by a Republican-led House Oversight Committee, no less. Yet Pitlyk continued to describe the health care provider’s practices as “baby parts trafficking.” In a separate case, she accused Planned Parenthood of preying on low-income women through the location of their centers.
“Even when the facts were clear, she continued to rely on misinformation. What does that say about her temperament to be a judge?” asks Dan Goldberg, Legal Director at the Alliance for Justice, a liberal advocacy group.
Born in 1977 and educated in Catholic schools, Pitlyk has strongly held views about reproductive issues influenced by her religious background and beliefs. That would include opposition to Roe, and to aspects of the Affordable Care Act where contraceptives are provided.
The archdiocese in St. Louis touted her judicial appointment with the headline, “St. Louis Catholic to be nominated as federal judge,” noting that if confirmed she would be replacing a “pro-abortion judge,” also a woman, appointed by President Clinton.
Opposition to abortion is in the Republican platform, and Pitlyk noted in her hearing that the position that life begins at conception is affirmed in a Missouri statute, where she lives and practices law.
Even so, most Americans would be surprised that a nominee for the federal bench would have such a visceral negative reaction to reproductive technology (IVF) that helps women who could not otherwise bear children and allows LGBTQ families to have children.
Pitlyk authored an amicus brief opposing a California statute that protects the right to assisted reproductive technology. She claims in her brief that “surrogacy has grave effects on society, such as diminished respect for motherhood and the unique mother/child bond; exploitation of women; commodification of gestation and of children themselves; and weakening of appropriate social mores against eugenic abortion.”
Pitlyk clerked for Brett Kavanaugh when he was on the U.S. District Court, and like Kavanaugh, has a law degree from Yale. She’s highly credentialed, but her reflexive views about a changing society should give lawmakers pause about waving her onto a lifetime seat on the federal court.
“Sarah Pitlyk’s views on reproductive rights, surrogacy and in vitro fertilization are extreme even within the conservative fringe,” Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CN) told The Daily Beast. “Not only has she spent her entire career working to dismantle the constitutional protections that allow women to make their own health care decisions, she’s taken it a step further by advocating for legal principles that would make having a family significantly harder for parents struggling to conceive.”
A spokesperson with NARAL Pro-Choice America told The Daily Beast in a statement: “Sarah Pitlyk, who is not only hostile to Roe but also opposes surrogacy and IVF, embodies Trump’s dangerous agenda. Her appointment to the district court in Missouri is the last thing Missouri women and families need, when they’re already facing ongoing attacks by anti-choice politicians trying to interfere with the most personal and critical decisions about pregnancy.”