WASHINGTON — The national debate over abortion rights raged in the U.S. House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, as Democrats warned of the dangers of a potential end to the constitutional right and Republicans argued that legislatures should determine abortion laws.
The hearing came just weeks after a leaked draft opinion from Associate Justice Samuel Alito showed the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative justices poised to end the fundamental right to terminate a pregnancy that was established in 1973 and reaffirmed in 1992.
Democrats said the hearing was essential to informing Americans how their lives would change if the court overturns Roe v. Wade. Republicans on the panel rebuked their colleagues for holding a hearing they contended was meant to influence the Supreme Court ahead of its final decision, expected in late June.
Georgia Democratic Rep. Hank Johnson pointed to the lack of health care providers for people throughout his home state, saying that half of Georgia counties don’t have an obstetrician, an obstetrician-gynecologist, or a family physician.
Johnson said that has made Georgia “the most dangerous state in the nation for pregnant women.”
He also expressed frustration with Georgia state lawmakers passing legislation that would bar most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, but not bolstering health care services for those people.
“Isn’t it ironic that states like Georgia want to force women to remain pregnant, but seem unwilling to help women stay alive during pregnancy?” Johnson said.
Maternal deaths among Black women
Michele Goodwin, chancellors professor of law at the University of California, Irvine, testified that many states moving to enact strict limits on abortion access are the same states with the highest rates of maternal mortality.
Goodwin said those higher maternal mortality rates have had a disproportionate effect on women of color.
“There’s been so little attention to the fact Black women have suffered in grave and inhumane ways in states with abortion bans,” Goodwin testified.
Many Republican-controlled state legislatures have been rushing to tighten their abortion laws as the date of the court ruling nears. They are some of the strictest limits on abortion enacted in decades.
Dr. Yashica Robinson, medical director at Alabama Women’s Health Care Center and an at-large member on the Board of Directors for Physicians for Reproductive Health, testified that Black women in Alabama are five times more likely to die from pregnancy than white women.
Robinson told the committee that systemic barriers, racism and white supremacy are at the root of the maternal health care crisis.
“Restrictions on abortion affect everyone yet fall hardest on those who are marginalized,” Robinson said.
Republicans slam Roe
Republicans on the panel contended the hearing seemed intended to sway the Supreme Court justices’ decision-making process as the nine justices continue working toward releasing a decision in the case on Mississippi’s 15-week abortion law, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.
GOP lawmakers also said the Supreme Court ruled incorrectly in 1973 that the Constitution protected a person’s decision to terminate a pregnancy as well as in the 1992 case that reaffirmed that right.
Republicans said they believe it’s more appropriate for legislatures to determine if pregnant people should be allowed to terminate a pregnancy, or required by the government to carry it to term.
Catherine Glenn Foster, president and CEO of Americans United for Life, spoke about her decision to get an abortion when she was 19, though she said that she doesn’t think the ability to end a pregnancy should be legal going forward.
Foster sought to rebut testimony from the other witnesses that ending access to abortion, or severely restricting it, would disproportionately affect women of color.
“Pro-life policies are meant to protect all human beings,” Foster testified.
Foster also compared people who support abortion rights to people who sought to keep slavery legal in the United States.
“We once had allegedly serious citizens in America speak for slavery. Many fought and even died to perpetuate that injustice,” Foster testified. “It seems incredible to us today but Americans can and will overcome the injustice of abortion, just as Americans did finally overcome the injustice of slavery.”
Foster did not seem to support exceptions for rape or incest survivors and testified that the Supreme Court ending a nationwide, fundamental right to an abortion would allow lawmakers to enshrine “law and policy that makes abortion unthinkable.”