Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) speaks at a March rally near the Trump International Hotel and Tower in New York. (Julius Constantine Motal/AP)
With Joanie Greve and Mariana Alfaro
THE BIG IDEA: Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) held a campaign event today inside the Georgia State Capitol to protest the flurry of antiabortion bills that have been passing in red states – and unveil new campaign promises to protect Roe v. Wade.
Gillibrand – who announced last week that she would only appoint judges who will uphold Roe – vowed to turn the landmark 1973 case into a permanent law if she’s elected president.
She pledged to “make sure that every woman in America, no matter what state she lives in or how much money she has in her pocket, can have guaranteed access to safe, legal abortion.”
Gillibrand went even further: She would seek to guarantee access to the procedure in every state by requiring private insurance companies to cover abortions and creating a federal authority to oversee state restrictions on the procedure. And she wants to end the Hyde Amendment, which bars the use of federal funds including Medicaid to pay for abortions.
Condemning the “nationwide assault on women’s constitutional rights,” Gillibrand told a group of protesters that the fight for abortion access would have to be waged everywhere — from the courts to statehouses to Congress.
She also called out President Trump by name for nominating “anti-choice extremists” to the Supreme Court. “That is why we must come together to declare that reproductive rights are human rights,” Gillibrand said. “They are civil rights, and they are non-negotiable.”
Gillibrand, in an interview yesterday before traveling to Georgia, promised to be a leader on this issue. “I’m going to Atlanta to lead the fight against these unbelievable, draconian inhumane abortion bans,” she said. “As I’ve watched this, I have become more and more concerned that we not only need to shine a light on it and lift up the voices of women who will be impacted, but that I have to lead this fight. So I’m going to take it right to the lion’s gate. I’m going to take it right to the belly of the beast.”
Georgia’s governor signed a bill last week that would outlaw abortion after a “fetal heartbeat” is detected — which usually happens about six weeks following conception, before many women even realize they are pregnant. Mississippi, Kentucky and Ohio have recently passed similar measures.
Missouri’s state Senate passed a bill early this morning that would ban abortions after eight weeks. The GOP-controlled House is expected to pass it swiftly, and the Republican governor says he’s waiting with pen in hand to sign it. The bill makes no exceptions for rape or incest.
Gillibrand’s visit to Georgia also came the morning after Republican Gov. Kay Ivey in neighboring Alabama signed the most restrictive abortion law in the country. Doctors could be imprisoned for up to 99 years if they perform an abortion. Likewise, there are no exceptions for women who were raped or the victims of incest.
— Gillibrand, who met with abortion providers, activists and state legislators before giving her speech, said most Democrats have become more direct when talking about reproductive rights than they were a few years ago. There’s less throat clearing than there used to be. Very few politicians use the “safe, legal, and rare” talking point that was so standard during the Bill Clinton era.
“As a party, we should be 100 percent pro-choice, and it should be nonnegotiable,” Gillibrand said in our interview. “We should not settle for less, and if our party cannot support women’s basic human rights, their fundamental freedoms to make decisions about their bodies and their futures, then we are not the party of women. … I will not compromise on women’s reproductive freedom.”
The senator attributes the more strident tone to the fact that more women are participating in politics, and they are more passionate about protecting their rights than the men who used to call the shots in the party. “I think women’s voices are being heard now more than ever,” said Gillibrand. “Women are feeling self-empowered. I don’t think they’re going to take excuses anymore, and I don’t think they’re going to support candidates that don’t believe they should get to make those fundamentally personal decisions.”
To break through in such a crowded field, other presidential candidates have also centered their campaigns on one overarching issue. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee talks nonstop about combating climate change. Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) focuses on gun control. Tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang’s big idea is a universal basic income. For spiritual guru Marianne Williamson, it’s reparations for the descendants of slaves. For Bernie Sanders, it always comes back to Medicare-for-all. For Elizabeth Warren, it’s using a 2 percent wealth tax on everyone worth more than $50 million to pay for a battery of ambitious new programs, including universal child care.
But no one else is talking about reproductive rights nearly as much or as forcefully as Gillibrand. She said that abortion comes up constantly on the campaign trail and has “in every state I’ve visited.” All the major 2020 contenders spoke out yesterday against the new laws in Alabama, Georgia and elsewhere, but Gillibrand is the first to travel to the region specifically to emphasize her opposition.
“Young women are deeply concerned because their lives are at risk,” she said. “This is their ability to control their bodies, their basic human rights, their basic civil rights as individuals to decide when they’re having children, how many children they’re having and whether they will have them safely. These are issues that are life-and-death issues for women, and they should not be demeaned and undermined so much that they’re not allowed to make these most personal decisions themselves.”
Margeaux Hartline, dressed as a handmaid, proterts on Tuesday outside of the State House in Montgomery, Ala. (Mickey Welsh/The Montgomery Advertiser via AP)
— Gillibrand caused ripples when she announced last week that, if elected, she will appoint only judges who will uphold Roe. She notes that these states have all been controlled by Republicans for years, but they’re passing these laws now in direct response to Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. He replaced Anthony Kennedy, who provided the decisive fifth vote that preserved Roe v. Wade in the 1992 case of Casey v. Planned Parenthood. Antiabortion activists are confident, based on his track record as a judge on the D.C. Circuit and as a conservative legal activist, that he’ll be with them when it counts.
Trump pledged in 2016 that he would appoint only antiabortion justices to the Supreme Court. He said his appointees would “automatically” overturn Roe. At one point, he even said that women should be punished for seeking abortions before walking that back. Putting out lists of judges he would consider for the Supreme Court helped gin up turnout among social conservatives who were otherwise skeptical of him. In a close election, anything can be called pivotal. But it doesn’t seem like a stretch to say that this might have been decisive.
In their futile efforts to stop the confirmation of his judicial nominees through the GOP-controlled Senate, Democrats have relentlessly attacked Trump for promising he would appoint only antiabortion judges. I pressed Gillibrand on whether her litmus test is therefore hypocritical. Her answer essentially boiled down to the fact that Trump broke the dam, and there’s no going back now. Gillibrand, a lawyer by training, nodded to the importance of judicial independence. But she essentially argues that the high court has already become politicized and wonders why Democrats would maintain the fiction that justices are somehow impartial when it comes to one of the most charged issues in society. She believes that voters have a right to know with certainty that who they’re supporting for president will appoint judges who will take a certain position on abortion.
“First of all, the fact is that President Trump has made it his mission to overturn Roe v. Wade,” Gillibrand said. “He’s changed the entire landscape of the judicial system. Certainly, Mitch McConnell did that by stealing the Merrick Garland seat. It’s a new level of threat, and it is not a drill. It’s something that every American woman, and every American family that cares about women, should be well aware of.”
Antiabortion activists protest outside the Supreme Court during the March for Life in January. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)
— Gillibrand’s liberal colleagues in the Senate are stopping short of saying they’ll impose this kind of litmus test on judicial nominees. Campaigning in New Hampshire yesterday, for instance, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) would only go so far as to say that upholding Roe would be a “significant factor” in her deliberations. The former California attorney general also said that she would consider adding as many as four more seats to the Supreme Court to change the balance of power while expressing interest in imposing term limits on justices and limiting the number of nominees any particular president gets to pick. “I’m open to this conversation about increasing the number of people on the United States Supreme Court,” she said.
Gillibrand defended herself by noting that it’s not unreasonable to demand that judges uphold precedent. “Every single one of those justices said that they would hold up precedent. I’m concerned they lied, and I’m concerned they won’t,” she said. “So I’m going to be very direct: I believe in precedent, I believe in the precedent of Roe v. Wade, and any judge that I will nominate to be a Supreme Court justice or to be a judge on any court will be a pro-choice judge who will uphold the precedent of Roe v. Wade.”
The senator sees much of the energy on her side in the abortion debate as stemming from Trump’s 2016 victory, despite the “Access Hollywood” video, and the #MeToo movement that’s followed. “A lot of this rebirth of the women’s movement is a direct response to electing President Trump, who has more than a dozen sexual assault allegations against him and clearly doesn’t value women and particularly women of color,” she said. “They’ve been fighting and marching since President Trump became president. You saw it in the women’s marches globally, and then you saw it again in 2018 with the number of women who ran and won and voted. I think everything is changing, and it’s changing in the red places and the purple places. Our breakthrough elections were all in the red and purple districts and with purple state governors.” (Trump has denied all the allegations of sexual misconduct.)
Gillibrand highlighted the victories of Democratic women in the midterms like Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan. Whitmer has promised to veto bills that passed Michigan’s legislature on Tuesday to ban a common second-trimester abortion procedure. The bills would prohibit physicians from performing abortion by dilation and evacuation except to save a woman’s life.
— The senator says that these debates allow female candidates to make the case that there should be more women at the table. In Alabama, all 25 of the votes that were cast in favor of the abortion bill in the state Senate were from white Republican men. Women account for 51 percent of Alabama’s population but hold only 15 percent of the seats in the state legislature. In Georgia, women hold 72 of the 236 seats in the state legislature. That’s just less than a third.
“It’s vital because most men, particularly white men, cannot imagine what it would be like to not have full constitutional rights and full freedoms,” Gillibrand said. “They can’t possibly imagine someone else telling them about how many children they’re going to have and what’s going to happen to their body in a life-or-death situation whether you are going to have a child. I don’t think men in America can fully understand what it’s like to be told your body is not your own. And that some legislator from far away who knows nothing about you gets to make that decisions. Having a child is a serious, not risk-free, decision. There’s a lot of maternal mortality in this country. Women sometimes have very hard pregnancies.”
— To be sure, it’s not just the Democratic women who are stopping abortion bills. The Wisconsin State Assembly yesterday passed a bill addressing what happens during the rare situation when a baby is born alive during a failed abortion attempt. But Gov. Tony Evers (D), who defeated Scott Walker in November, has promised to veto the measure when it passes the GOP-controlled state Senate. Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor, Tom Wolf, has also pledged to veto a bill that passed the state House on Tuesday to outlaw abortions because of a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome.
— Last year’s General Social Survey showed that 2 in 3 Democrats said a woman should be able to have an abortion for any reason, compared with 35 percent of Republicans. A Pew poll published last September found that 58 percent of Americans said abortion should be legal in at least most cases, compared with 37 percent who said it should be illegal in all or most cases. That top-line number has stayed consistent over the past few decades, though other polling shows that most Americans shy away from absolutism on both sides of the abortion debate.
— While the national debate has sharpened and polarized, by no means do all Democratic politicians support abortion rights. Especially in the South. Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D), who is up for reelection in November, has indicated he will sign a “heartbeat bill” that’s moving quickly through the state legislature that prohibits abortion as early as the sixth week of a pregnancy. The bill, introduced by a Democrat, passed out of the state House’s health committee yesterday without objections. It’s written so that it can go into effect only if a federal appellate court upholds a nearly identical law in Mississippi. That’s designed to minimize litigation costs for the state.
— But there are also Democratic officeholders in red states who are taking a stand against the post-Kavanaugh laws. The Democratic district attorney of Salt Lake County in Utah, for example, announced yesterday afternoon that he will not enforce an 18-week ban that was just enacted statewide. The two abortion clinics in the state are both in his jurisdiction. District Attorney Sim Gill said he thinks the law is unconstitutional, so prosecuting doctors who perform abortions would be inappropriate.
— These latest bills are pushing the debate toward territory where Democrats can more clearly prevail politically. “Until recently, Republicans have been on offense on the issue of abortion, deploying a similar playbook to the one Democrats are now using by calling their opponents extreme due to a recent law passed in New York that expanded access to abortions late in a pregnancy,” Michael Scherer and Felicia Sonmez report. “In his State of the Union address this year, Trump pointed to the New York law and comments by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) about a proposed abortion bill to argue that Democrats supported efforts to ‘allow a baby to be ripped from the mother’s womb moments before birth.’ … But on Wednesday, Trump did not mention the new legislation in Alabama, Georgia and Ohio.
“The Trump reelection campaign referred questions about the Alabama bill to the White House, which declined to comment on the bills specifically. … And several Republican senators such as Martha McSally (Ariz.) and Thom Tillis (N.C.), who are facing tough reelection fights, avoided the issue as best they could. ‘That’s a state issue. I’m focused on my work here,’ McSally said in a hallway interview at the U.S. Capitol. Tillis dodged in a similar encounter: ‘I’m going to leave it to the folks in Alabama how to govern that state.’ Even Alabama’s senior senator distanced himself from Republicans in the state legislature.”
— Gillibrand said Democrats ought to speak unapologetically even in the reddest areas about their absolute support for abortion access. She defeated a Republican incumbent in a ruby red House district in 2006 and was later appointed to the Senate in 2010. Her positions have shifted on guns and immigration as she represented a blue state, but she’s been consistent on abortion.
“The truth about women’s reproductive freedom is that one in four women are going to need an abortion service in their lifetime,” Gillibrand said. “With that rate of prevalence, it means most people — if not every person — knows someone who has needed those health-care services in their lifetime. It is not something that is unique. It is something that is basic health care for many Americans, and we should make sure it’s available and safe. … I believe this is something that women and men who love women will support.”
THE LEGAL FIGHT AHEAD:
— As Gov. Kay Ivey (R) signed the Alabama bill into law, activists on both sides girded for protracted litigation. Emily Wax-Thibodeaux and Chip Brownlee report from Montgomery, Ala.: “As a crop duster with a banner saying ‘Abortion is okay’ hummed above the capitol, circling back and forth around the governor’s mansion, a group of women below let out a cheer. ‘Just another day in Alabama,’ said Mia Raven, director of People Organizing for Women’s Empowerment and Rights (POWER) House. Women’s rights activists and abortion rights advocates said the decision to approve the nation’s strictest abortion measure has energized them. … Though not demonstrating in the streets, Alabama’s antiabortion base — which recently helped define the state as pro-life at the ballot box — took solace in the fact that the state’s ban on abortion set a new restrictive standard. …
“Ivey said she recognizes that the bill might be unenforceable because of Roe v. Wade, and she said that ‘we must always respect the authority of the U.S. Supreme Court even when we disagree with their decisions.’ She said the sponsors of the bill ‘believe that it is time, once again, for the U.S. Supreme Court to revisit this important matter, and they believe this act may bring about the best opportunity for this to occur.’ … The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Terri Collins [R], said it is intended to serve as a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade. She said she hopes the bill will establish that personhood begins at conception.”
— The five conservative justices are more likely to chip away at Roe through smaller blows than by invalidating the precedent in one fell swoop. The New York Times’s Adam Liptak reports: “As soon as Monday, the court could announce whether it will hear challenges to three provisions of Indiana abortion laws on issues like the disposal of fetal remains and an 18-hour waiting period after state-mandated ultrasound examinations. The court will in the coming months almost certainly agree to hear a challenge to a Louisiana law that could reduce the number of abortion clinics in the state to one. The Alabama bill … is a different kind of measure, one that squarely conflicts with Roe. …
“Because the [John] Roberts court tends toward incrementalism, it is not likely to want to take on a direct confrontation with that precedent. Nor in all likelihood will it have to. Lower courts will almost certainly strike down the Alabama statute and other direct bans on abortion … Since the Supreme Court controls its own docket, it can simply deny review after lower courts strike down laws squarely at odds with Roe.”
— Roberts’ cautious approach is being tested in the Indiana case. The justices will meet behind closed doors again today for the 14th time to deliberate on what to do. The Los Angeles Times’s David G. Savage reports: “The high court’s action — or so far, nonaction — in Indiana’s case gives one clue as to how the court’s conservative majority will decide the fate of abortion bans recently passed by lawmakers in Alabama and Georgia. … Roberts’ history, along with the court’s handling of abortion cases in recent years, suggests he will not move to overturn the right to abortion soon, or all at once, and is particularly unlikely to do so in the next year or two with a presidential election pending.”
The Indiana law in question was signed in 2016 by then-Gov. Mike Pence: “In October, a week after Kavanaugh was sworn in, Indiana’s lawyers asked the high court to hear the case and uphold the law … Normally, the justices consider such an appeal for a week or two. If at least four of them vote to hear the appeal, the case is granted a full review. If not, it is denied in a one-line order. Since Jan. 4, however, the court has repeatedly relisted the case of Box vs. Planned Parenthood for reconsideration.”
— Televangelist Pat Robertson, who helped lead the rise of the religious right in the 1980s and 1990s, said Alabama’s “extreme” new law has probably “gone too far” to withstand legal scrutiny. “They want to challenge Roe vs. Wade, but my humble view is I don’t think that’s the case I’d want to bring to the Supreme Court because I think this one will lose,” he said. “God bless them. They’re trying to do something.” (Sarah Pulliam Bailey)
— Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R), who signed the bill into law, has postponed a trip he was supposed to take to Los Angeles next week to promote the state’s film industry. He was concerned about mass protests and the possibility that studio chiefs would cancel meetings. His spokesman said he’ll try again in the fall to go out west. Despite threats to cancel production in the state that’s become known as “the Hollywood of the South,” thanks to generous tax incentives, there has not yet been follow-through.
MORE ON 2020:
— New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on ABC’s “Good Morning America” that he will run for president. Michael Scherer reports: “He plans to travel to Iowa and South Carolina this week for a series of introductory campaign events. … As a late arrival to the race, de Blasio might not qualify for the first Democratic presidential debate in June, which requires earning 1 percent in three public polls, or receiving 65,000 donors from at least 20 states by June 13. … In a party that prizes diversity, de Blasio becomes the 14th white male candidate for president.”
— With de Blasio and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock in, there are now 23 Democratic candidates who have declared for president. That’s enough for two football teams, with one left over to play referee. “So many Democrats are running for president that the chair of the National Governors Association, the mayor of America’s largest city and the senior senator from Colorado may not even qualify for the first debate — even though it allows for 20 candidates,” Scherer reports. “Some Democratic leaders worry privately that this army of candidates makes it harder for the party to coalesce around a single standard-bearer, and deliver a clear message, in time to mount the strongest possible campaign against a president they urgently want to defeat. And for the candidates, the landscape makes it increasingly difficult to strategize, stand out and make their case. Fourteen of the candidates polled below 2 percent in the last CNN national poll.”
— Joe Biden’s campaign headquarters will be in Philadelphia. He will make a formal announcement during a rally on Saturday afternoon at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (John Wagner)
— Bullock said he raised $1 million from donors in all 50 states in the first 24 hours of his presidential bid. But his campaign did not disclose the number of donors, a figure necessary to land Bullock in the first debate next month. (CNN)
— Kamala Harris said she won’t participate in a Fox News town hall. “They’ve reached out, but we haven’t entertained it,” a Harris campaign spokesperson said. (CNN)
— Pete Buttigieg signed two of Barack Obama’s 2008 ad-makers. Larry Grisolano and John Del Cecato of AKPD Message and Media are joining the South Bend, Ind., mayor’s team. (Politico)
— Rep. Tusli Gabbard (D-Hawaii) said she would drop criminal charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and whistleblower Edward Snowden if elected. (Newsweek)
— Amy Klobuchar gave an interview to Elle about the sexism she’s experienced. “A memory I have is from when I’d been in the Senate for a few months,” the senator from Minnesota said. “I was on the elevator with two of my staff members. The door opened, and a male senator was standing outside. He said, ‘Excuse me, this elevator is for senators only.’ My staff member said, ‘She is a senator.’ And then I looked at him and asked, ‘But who are you?’ I knew exactly who he was. The elevator door closed, and he never got on. He’s no longer there.”
— Stacey Abrams, who recently passed on running for Senate in Georgia, explains why she’s focused on fighting voter suppression in an op-ed for the New York Times that doesn’t give away whether she’ll run for president: “Across the country, voter purges employ an easily manipulated ‘use it or lose it’ rule, under which eligible voters who exercised their First Amendment right to abstain from voting in prior elections can be booted off the rolls. Add to this mix closed or relocated polling places outside the reach of public transit, sometimes as far as 75 miles away, or long lines that force low-income voters to forfeit half a day’s pay, and a modern poll tax is revealed.”
— Trump’s advisers and appointees are attracting an unusually high number of complaints over accusations that they violated the Hatch Act, which prohibits them from using their government jobs to campaign for the president’s reelection. Politico’s Anita Kumar reports: “A Trump appointee displayed a ‘Make America Great Again’ hat at her Housing and Urban Development office. A top official at the Office of Management and Budget used his official Twitter account to promote the campaign slogan. And White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway delivered a scathing and unprompted attack on Trump’s potential opponent, Joe Biden, during a TV interview. … Increasingly, the public — and, watchdog groups say, the Trump administration — merely shrugs at such activities, representing another political norm trampled during the president’s tenure. It’s concerning advocates who say the rise in complaints reflects broader ethical lapses in the Trump administration, including staffers spending staggering amounts on travel, promoting the president’s businesses and failing to file legally required financial reports.”