‘Forced birth is an act of violence’: Law professor condemns anti-abortion laws in post-Roe Senate hearing

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Khiara Bridges had a stern warning to anti-abortion witnesses and members of Congress listening to her biting testimony in a Senate committee studying the impact of the US Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the constitutional right to an abortion.

Republican Senator Tom Cotton asked panelists testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on 12 July whether they condemn violence against so-called crisis pregnancy centres, nonmedical facilities intended to deter people from seeking an abortion.

“I condemn violence,” said Ms Bridges, a professor of law at University of California Berkeley School of Law and reproductive health scholar. “And I would like to note that forced birth is an act of violence.”

She pointed to an increase in the number of assaults, barricades and suspicious packages outside abortion clinics, as abortion rights advocates face escalating threats to abortion care following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the landmark, half-century precedent in Roe v Wade.

Heidi Matzke, executive director of the Alternatives Pregnancy Center in California, said crisis pregnancy centres like hers – nonmedical facilities intended to dissuade people from seeking an abortion – have been “targeted for violent assaults of vandalism, and hateful attacks online and in the media.”

Dr Colleen P McNicholas, chief medical officer of Planned Parenthood of the St Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, also condemned violence – then read the names of nine abortion providers and clinic workers who were killed for providing abortion care.

“I absolutely condemn violence against everyone, including abortion providers,” she said.

The hearing is one of four this week to study the healthcare and legal landscapes following the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization on 24 June.

“I cannot overstate the level of harm and chaos that the Dobbs decision has already caused people seeking abortion care,” Ms Bridges said.

She stressed that “people of color, specifically Black people, will feel the impact of the court’s decision in Dobbs more than any other racial group,” pointing to reporting from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that finds that Black women are three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related causes than white women.

Illinois Lt Governor Juliana Stratton said abortion clinics in her state have seen the number of out-of-state patients double within the two weeks after the Supreme Court decision, a figure she expects to increase, as Midwestern states enact more restrictive laws.

Ms Stratton, who is Black, said a “post-Roe America will be devastating for Black women”, echoing the CDC’s maternal mortality rates.

Texas Republican John Cornyn asked Ms Bridges whether she believes “there ought to be more Black babies aborted”.

“[Black people] have agency, they have intelligence, they know what is best for themselves and I would love to create the conditions under which they can live lives that are filled with dignity and humanity,” Ms Bridges said.

Democratic Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey chastised GOP senators who he said have made it sound like safe, legal abortion access is “somehow racist against African Americans.”

Ms Stratton said having that care is “liberating for Black women.”

“To be able to have bodily autonomy and the ability to decide what’s best for their bodies for their lives and their futures,” she said.

Ms Bridges also fired back at Senator Josh Hawley after the Republican senator from Missouri appeared to dismiss that transgender people could become pregnant, underscoring the myriad, far-reaching impacts of dissolving legal abortion care that the committee sought to uncover, from the legal ramifications to what committee chair Dick Durbin called a looming health crisis.

In his opening remarks, Senator Durbin derided the high court’s ruling and the wave of state-level anti-abortion laws now taking effect without constitutional protections for abortion care, leaving only “insufficient and confusing exceptions for the life of the mother”.

“Many do not even provide exceptions for rape or incest. When they do, they’re unwieldy and inadequate,” he said.

He warned that providers and doctors with patients in their care who need an abortion must “weigh the the risk of jailtime against making the best decision for the health of the patient”, while providers and people assisting others to access abortion care, including companies providing travel aid to their employees, could face legal liability in states where it is outlawed.

The Dobbs decision “raises many questions with no answers, leaving healthcare providers and patients to navigate new restrictions that will likely and rightfully face constitutional challenge,” he said.

“In overturning Roe, the Supreme Court has unleashed a healthcare crisis across America,” he said. “Make no mistake, women’s health, and in some cases their lives, are at risk.”

Anti-abortion advocates on the panel argued that the Supreme Court merely returned the decision whether abortion should be legal back to individual states.

But Ms Bridges said that states with anti-abortion laws also have some of the most restrictive election laws that undermine the right to vote and the idea of a representative democracy in states where abortion is outlaws.

She pointed to Senate Bill 8 in Texas, which became law late last year, that outlaws abortion at roughly six weeks of pregnancy, before many people know they are pregnant, or about two weeks after a missed period.

States weighing whether “people can battle it out in these laboratories of democracy as to whether they want to protect fetal life over the interests of the pregnant person” are the same states passing restrictive voting laws, Ms Bridges said.

“Texas has the most restrictive voting laws on the books. Texas SB 8 doesn’t represent the will of the majority of Texas. Texas SB 8 represents the will of the majority of Texans that were able to vote,” she said. “So in order for this to be a democracy, we have to protect voting rights.”

After Utah Republican Senator Mike Lee mentioned a letter that Mr Durbin wrote in 1989 in which he supported efforts to reverse Roe v Wade, Mr Durbin said he owed his evolving views on abortion rights to a meeting with “two young women who were about to turn 18 – one a victim of incest, one a victim of rape – and they told me their stories.”

“I left that meeting with a kind of understanding that I had never had before about the complexity of the decision behind the abortion procedure,” he said. “I thought to myself, ‘As an individual member of Congress, are you ready to pass a law that applies to every woman in America?’ No. It really has to be her decision.”