Commentary Law and Policy

GOP Women’s Senate Judiciary Assignments Are About Abortion, Not Optics

Jessica Mason Pieklo

Republicans assigned Sens. Marsha Blackburn and Joni Ernst to the Judiciary Committee because of their hostility to abortion rights, not because of the Kavanaugh nomination.

Republicans made history this week by assigning one-third of their women senators to serve on the Judiciary Committee.

U.S. Sens. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and Joni Ernst (R-IA) are set to become the first Republican women to serve on the Senate Judiciary Committee, but their assignments are about more than just addressing the horrible optics of Republicans never having had a woman on a committee that deals with fundamental constitutional privacy rights like abortion. They just added two more committed anti-choice activists and Trump loyalists to the committee charged with jurisdiction over federal civil rights law, at precisely the time the administration’s attacks on civil rights—and especially reproductive rights—are reaching a fevered pitch. 

And that is a serious concern.

“What we really need right now, especially when you think about what this administration is doing in terms of an all-out assault on our civil rights laws, what we really need are committees looking under the hood,” said National Women’s Law Center President and CEO Fatima Goss Graves in an interview with Rewire.News.

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“One of the things that should be a top priority is the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA),” Graves said. “It’s just really outrageous that it was allowed to expire, and that especially in this era where there is a new, important level of attention to the many ways in which violence undermines all of us, we need our policymakers to reflect that,” said Graves. VAWA is a federal law designed to improve criminal justice and community-based responses to sexual assault and domestic violence; the Senate Judiciary Committee has jurisdiction to review pending federal legislation, including VAWA.

Not surprisingly, anti-choice advocates praised the assignments of Blackburn and Ernst and were hopeful they would help usher in even more anti-choice federal judges. 

“It’s great to have two women on the Senate Judiciary Committee, especially two heroes like Sens. Blackburn and Ernst,” said anti-choice activist and Live Action Founder and President Lila Rose in a statement to Rewire.News. “They are both staunch advocates for the protection of women and their preborn children from the predation of the abortion industry. Having these two on the Judiciary Committee could help ensure that judicial appointments to the federal courts are committed to strict interpretation of the law rather than devoted to twisting the meaning of words to make laws conform to their individual policy preferences,” said Rose. 

Rose added that it was “especially important to rid the courts of activist judges who interpret our laws to mean just about anything that expands abortion in this country.”

Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, echoed Rose’s praise of the assignments and what they could mean for the anti-choice movement. “I know both Senators Blackburn and Ernst, and am very happy they are on the Senate Judiciary Committee. They believe, as do we, that the role of the committee is to conduct fair hearings based on a nominee’s qualifications to serve on the federal bench,” Pavone said in a statement to Rewire.News. 

“Simply having that focus, and commitment to objectivity, automatically helps the pro-life cause,” he continued. “And the reason is simple: President Trump’s nominees have everything to do with the Constitution; abortion has nothing to do with the Constitution.” 

To be clear, Ernst and Blackburn are being praised for advancing the view that the U.S. Constitution does not protect a right to privacy and that federal law should follow suit. Father Pavone and Lila Rose may be talking about abortion, but their views that the Constitution does not protect a right to privacy extend far beyond whether or not abortion is protected: It extends to the right to use contraception and to any of our sexual privacy rights.   

The reaction to the Blackburn and Ernst assignments from the anti-choice movement is not surprising, though. Both Blackburn and Ernst have a long track record of attacking reproductive autonomy. When Blackburn was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, she “collaborated with anti-choice extremists in an inflammatory, taxpayer-funded crusade against Planned Parenthood,” as Rewire.News reported. Her select committee was born from the anti-abortion propaganda campaign spawned by David Daleiden and the Center For Medical Progress, which falsely accused Planned Parenthood of illegally profiting from legal donations of fetal tissue. As reported by Rewire.News‘ Christine Grimaldi, over the course of the year-long investigation, Blackburn’s so-called Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives “undermined life-saving fetal tissue research, while endangering the privacy and safety of researchers and reproductive health-care providers alike,” all while costing taxpayers $1.59 million and finding bupkis. 

Ernst is also no stranger to anti-choice shenanigans. While a state legislator in Iowa, she supported a constitutional amendment that would have created “fetal personhood” and effectively re-criminalized abortion. In the U.S. Senate she’s come to the defense of Iowa’s absurdly unconstitutional “heartbeat ban,” a law that would ban abortion around six weeks of pregnancy.

And with Republicans almost singularly focused on finding judicial nominees committed to upending legal abortion and rolling back civil rights protections for LGBTQ people, Blackburn and Ernst are perfect foot soldiers to help continue that mission in the Judiciary Committee. The question is not if a direct legal challenge to abortion rights happens; it is when. In the first two years of Trump’s presidency, Republicans have almost remade the federal judiciary in a conservative model advocated for and approved by the Federalist Society. Trump’s judges are not just hostile to abortion rights; they are openly antagonistic and actively searching for a means to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Yet public support for abortion rights is more popular than ever. That means for conservatives, ending legal abortion is a political imperative for their base. Evangelicals set their sights on overturning Roe while the ink on the decision was still drying. But a campaign to specifically target abortion rights contains electoral risks for Republicans because of the public’s overwhelming support for abortion rights. Republicans know that with a thin margin of control in the Senate and a very unpopular president they have a window of time—right now—to push their attacks on abortion rights to the apex: first by pushing the most extreme forms of abortion restrictions ever in the states, like the Iowa “heartbeat ban” celebrated by Ernst, and then by installing ultra-conservative federal judges vetted by anti-choice advocacy groups who will uphold those restrictions. 

I’m less convinced the Blackburn and Ernst assignments were in direct response to the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, as Politico suggested, in part because I don’t believe conservatives see the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings as anything they need to recover from. For progressives, the reality of a Supreme Court nominee credibly accused of rape being shielded from any real committee investigation of those allegations by conservative white men is an abomination. For conservatives, it’s a display of force. 

I also wonder what if anything would have changed during the Kavanaugh hearings had someone like Ernst or even Blackburn been on the Judiciary Committee at the time. I don’t believe for a second they would have done anything but provide a different kind of cover for Kavanaugh, one that the men in the Republican Party would have been more than happy to exploit.

Maybe optics is a motivating factor in the Blackburn and Ernst assignments. But I think we should just take conservatives at their word when they say that these two members are the ones best poised to advance in the Senate Judiciary Committee the top Republican policy priority: confirming federal judges who will end legal abortion and erase nearly a century’s worth of civil rights advances. 

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