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Ginsburg's Death A 'Pivot Point' For Abortion Rights, Advocates Say

Renee-Lauren Ellis, a Washington, D.C.-area attorney, says, "It's dire that something as fundamental as what I do with my body is up for debate still, in 2020."
Renee-Lauren Ellis, a Washington, D.C.-area attorney, says, "It's dire that something as fundamental as what I do with my body is up for debate still, in 2020."

Updated at 11:10 a.m. ET

With her 14-month-old daughter on her hip, Anna Lashley, an attorney from Washington, D.C., came to pay her last respects to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the Supreme Court on Saturday.

"I just can't wait to tell my daughter about her, and teach her about the lessons she taught me, and what she did for women," Lashley said.

Now, with a vacancy on the court left by Ginsburg's death, President Trump appears poised to name his third Supreme Court nominee in less than four years — tilting the court even further to the right than its 5-4 conservative majority that existed until Friday.

"I'm terrified for women in this country," Lashley said. "I'm very concerned about what it will mean for Roe v. Wadegoing forward. I'm worried that other people aren't going to be able to take up the fight that she did for us."

Anna Lashley, a D.C.-area attorney, brought her daughter to the Supreme Court to honor the memory of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Sept. 19, 2020.
Sarah McCammon / NPR
Anna Lashley, a D.C.-area attorney, brought her daughter to the Supreme Court to honor the memory of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Sept. 19, 2020.

Without Ginsburg's reliable liberal vote and her consistent voice for reproductive rights, Renee-Lauren Ellis has similar fears about the future of the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide in 1973. Ellis, who's also a lawyer in the D.C. area, said she's afraid of what she sees as the potential to go backward.

"It's dire that something as fundamental as what I do with my body is up for debate still, in 2020," Ellis said.

Ginsburg's death sets up a divisive nomination fight in the midst of a presidential campaign. And advocates on opposing sides of the issue agree that it could be a turning point in the long-running debate over one of the most divisive issues for the court: abortion rights.

For those opposed to abortion rights, a Supreme Court vacancy just weeks before a presidential election also marks a pivot point.

Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, said she hopes to soon see the culmination of a movement that began decades ago.

"Our ultimate goal, and we've been very clear with this, is an America without abortion, where abortion is made illegal and unthinkable," Hawkins said.

Marjorie Dannenfelser is president of the Susan B. Anthony List, which opposes abortion rights and has spent years working to elect Republican senators and confirm conservative judges. The group, which has staunchly supported Trump and his judicial nominees, advocates a variety of restrictions on abortion, including banning the procedure at 20 weeks or earlier and for reasons such as the sex, race, or disability of the fetus.

Dannenfelser said she hopes a more conservative court would roll back the Roedecision, setting the stage for state legislatures to ban abortion as early as the first trimester.

"If abortion is the taking of a human life, the more ambitious they are the better," she said.

Dannenfelser said she and her family happened to be sitting outside the Supreme Court on Friday evening when they heard the news of Ginsburg's death.

"It was such a sense of profound meaning that we felt in her passing, and also a moment of change," she said. "That in this place that we're sitting will be the pivot point of change in our country."

Planned Parenthood Action Fund President Alexis McGill Johnson agrees there's a lot at stake.

"The fate of our rights, our freedoms, our health care, our bodies, our lives, our country, literally depends on what happens over the coming months," McGill Johnson said.

Groups that support abortion rights, including Planned Parenthood and NARAL, say they'll be working to apply pressure to potentially vulnerable Republican senators facing reelection now or in 2022, demanding they wait to confirm a replacement for Ginsburg until after the November election.

McGill Johnson notes that four years ago, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., famously refused to hold hearings to consider President Obama's nominee to replace Justice Antonin Scalia. At that time, the presidential election was more than eight months away, and McConnell argued it was too close. Now, with the election about six weeks away, McConnell is promising to work quickly to confirm a Trump nominee.

"Mitch McConnell keeps making up the rules to suit his desires and his will to maintain power," McGill Johnson said. "In a democracy, it's really important that we all play by the same rules."

Abortion rights advocates are closely watching more than a dozen cases that are working their way through the court system and could reach the Supreme Court in the near future – as well as a challenge to the Affordable Care Act, which could have significant implications for reproductive healthcare.

Mourners have been leaving flowers and other mementos outside the U.S. Supreme Court in honor of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Sarah McCammon / NPR
Mourners have been leaving flowers and other mementos outside the U.S. Supreme Court in honor of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

This summer, supporters of abortion rights won a surprising victory when the court struck down a Louisiana law that could have had the effect of shutting down most abortion clinics in the state. Chief Justice John Roberts cast the swing vote in that decision, siding with the majority. The opinion was in line with a 2016 ruling that struck down a similar Texas law requiring doctors who perform abortions to have hospital admitting privileges. In that case, Roberts had dissented. But in the Louisiana case, Roberts said he wanted to uphold the court's earlier precedent.

Michele Goodwin, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, said such a result would be far more difficult with another Trump nominee on the court.

"That would swing the court in such a way that for at least the next two generations that it would mean hostility to reproductive rights," Goodwin said.

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