President Obama's Supreme Court nominee is likely to be announced any day now, but the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has promised to take no action on the nomination process of a new justice until after the presidential election, is focusing on another issue: abortion. Specifically, those performed after 20 weeks gestation, which comprise slightly more than 1 percent of all the procedures carried out in the country.
The committee held a 2-hour hearing Tuesday about a measure proposed by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) banning abortions after 20 weeks, with exceptions for cases of rape, incest, and where the life of the mother is in danger. The bill is based on the premise that fetal brain and neural development is so advanced by 20 weeks that the fetus is capable of feeling pain—a concept that medical consensus says is highly unlikely and virtually impossible to prove. Many medical providers, such as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, oppose the bill, noting that is based on debunked science and harms women who are faced with especially difficult decisions about their pregnancies. Planned Parenthood issued a statement on Tuesday condemning the hearing: "Republican leadership wants to waste taxpayer time on a rejected piece of legislation that leading doctors flatly oppose."
A version of the legislation already failed once, a point Sen. Dianne Feinstein highlighted at the start of today's committee hearing. In September 2015, this bill was defeated before the Senate, she said, calling the current version an example of "a sustained political effort to make it as hard as possible for women to access healthcare that should be safe and legal." She spoke about her years at Stanford University in the 1950s, when friends with unwanted pregnancies would travel to Mexico for illegal abortions, or wanted to take their own lives.
"I know what life was like for young women before Roe," she said, citing data published in the last year showing an alarming uptick in women seeking information on, or even attempting, self-induced abortions.
Seven witnesses testified, including Melissa Ohden, an anti-abortion speaker who refers to herself as an "abortion survivor." Her mother attempted to abort her at what she believed was 18 weeks via a saline abortion—a now rarely-used means for terminating pregnancy. She regularly tells her story of surviving this 1977 abortion attempt on TV and radio programs, and spoke at a 2015 Congressional hearing about Planned Parenthood's fetal tissue donation program.
Dr. Diana Green Foster, a professor in the Obstetrics and Gynecology department of the University of California, San Francisco, presented findings from her study of women who sought late term abortions, the largest such study ever conducted. It followed nearly 1000 women for five years, some of whom received an abortion just before the gestational limit, and others who were turned away. She noted that unlike women who were able to get abortion care, the women who were turned away were more likely to be in poverty three years later, and in the long run were also more likely to be on public assistance and less likely to have a full-time job. For those women who already had children, Foster said, being turned away from abortion care brought negative consequences for their existing children: an increase in missed developmental milestones, and higher likelihood of living in poverty.
In one tense moment, Sen. Graham focused on the testimony of attorney Angelina Baglini Nguyen from the anti-abortion research group the Charlotte Lozier Institute, in which she said that the US is one of only seven countries that permit abortions past 20 weeks of gestation. Graham saw this as evidence of the United States' misguided abortion standards. Dr. Foster responded to Graham's point with examples from countries that limit abortions including one example of a woman in South Africa who was referred to a "clinic" that ended up being a trailer behind a cell phone store. "Being part of this club where women can safely, legally access abortion might be the right club," Foster said.
"Well, that's a matter of opinion," Graham responded.
Towards the end of the hearing, Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) asked the entire panel if any of them disagreed with the idea that if a child is born alive, all available medical careshould be provided if there's any chance of survival—a point that is stipulated in the 20 week abortion ban bill. Dr. Foster pointed out that the billdoes not provide options for a family and their doctors to decide to avoid medical intervention and spend that time saying goodbye to their child instead.
Christy Zink, one of the witnesses, spoke earlier about the abortion of a wanted pregnancy she had at nearly 22 weeks, after learning that the fetus was missing portions of its brain, would be unlikely to survive birth, and if it did survive, would likely live a life of near constant seizures and pain.
"This question of survival is more complicated," she said, noting her own situation and the extensive conversations her family had with medical professionals before coming to their decision.
But Zink's point about personal decision-making seemed lost on witness Dr. Colleen Malloy, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics-Neonatology at
Northwestern University, who responded, "There are plenty of children who are born with seizure disorders who don't live a life of pain and suffering."
One key point was hardly mentioned: The 20-week limit proposed in the bill would be unlikely to survive a constitutional challenge. The 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade stated that abortion must remain legal until the fetus is viable to survive outside the womb, a point it set at the start of the third trimester, typically 24 weeks. Still, many states have disregarded the question of constitutionality. In just the last year, 12 states have proposed 19 versions of a 20-week ban. This is in spite of the fact that proposed bans in number of states, including Arizona, Georgia, and Idaho, have been struck down by the courts.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) closed the hearing by referring to the recent uptick in violence at abortion clinics, wondering aloud about the possible causes.
"The political rhetoric is becoming itself more coarse and vituperative," he said. "I hope we can take from this hearing a message that science and law should be the guiding references. Not the political rhetoric of the campaign trail."
During Thursday night's GOP debate, moderator Jake Tapper asked Donald Trump about the recent spate of violence at his rallies, including an episode on Wednesday where a white man was charged with assault after punching a black protester at a Trump rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
"This is hardly the first incident of violence breaking out at your rallies," Tapper said. "Do you believe that you've done anything to create a tone where this kind of violence would be encouraged?"
Trump responded that he didn't condone this behavior. Tapper then proceeded to rattle off a series of Trump's own quotes from the campaign trail, including one instance in which he said about a protester: "I'd like to punch him in the face."
Trump responded by blaming the protesters: "We have some protesters who are bad dudes, they have done bad things," Trump said. "They get in there and start hitting people. We had a couple big, strong, powerful guys doing damage to people." Trump added that he relies on local police to remove protesters from his events, saying, "If they're gonna be taken out, I'll be honest, I mean, we have to run something."
Hannah Levintova and Julia LurieMar. 7, 2016 1:21 AM
During Sunday night's Democratic debate, hosted by CNN at the University of Michigan in Flint, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders answered several questions posed by residents of the city that is still reeling after lead-tainted water flowed through its pipes for 18 months. With just a few days to go until the primaries on Tuesday in Michigan, where 147 delegates will be at stake, these audience members and moderators Anderson Cooper and Don Lemon pushed Sen. Sanders and former Secretary of State Clinton to answer tough questions about poverty, religion, dismal schools, and whether the pair's fairly recent interest in Flint is just a political tactic. Later in the debate, the candidates also tussled on guns, race, Hillary's Wall Street speeches, fracking, and more. Notably, they spent hardly any time discussing their combative Republican rivals.
Here were the must-see moments:
1) Bernie and Hillary rip into the handling of the Flint crisis. Both called for Republican Gov. Rick Snyder's resignation—for the first time, in Clinton's case. Clinton went on to blast the state government for its response to the crisis. "It is raining lead in Flint, and the state is derelict in not coming forward with the money that is required," she said. As the crowd applauded, Sanders criticized the city's sky-high water bills—calling for a retroactive refund of the bills that residents paid for lead-tainted water.
2) A Flint mom asks what the candidates will do about lead contamination.LeeAnne Walters, a mother of four from Flint who was partly responsible for exposing the crisis, asked the candidates if they would make a "personal promise" that they would require all lead service lines removed within their first 100 days in office. Sanders promised to make sure every water system was tested, while Clinton went further, saying she would commit to "remove lead from everywhere" within five years.
3) Bern-splaining: "Excuse me, I'm talking." Sanders used a question about keeping manufacturing jobs on US soil to return to his familiar line of attack against Clinton: her support of various international trade agreements that led to the outsourcing of jobs. He mentioned the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)—recalling his days of picketing against the agreement in the '90s—and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), noting, "American workers should not be forced to compete with people in Vietnam today who make a minimum wage of 65 cents an hour."
Clinton interjected that Sanders voted against the auto bailout in 2009, which saved millions of auto industry jobs, including many in Michigan. Sanders cut her off and said, "Excuse me, I'm talking."
"If you're going to talk, tell the whole story," Clinton shot back. It was a rare moment of heat in a debate that never turned nasty.
4) Sanders asks Clinton to release her Wall Street speeches and announces that he's releasing his own. Sanders avoided discussing the auto bailout by noting that Clinton has a super-PAC raising millions of dollars for her campaign, while Sanders does not, and that Wall Street generously paid her for speeches. Once more, Sanders called for Clinton to release the transcripts of those speeches. "I kind of think if you get paid a couple hundred thousand dollars for a speech, it must be a great speech," Sanders said.
Clinton responded by saying she'd release her transcripts if all the other candidates, including the Republicans, did the same with their own Wall Street speeches. Host Anderson Cooper asked Sanders if this answer was sufficient for him. Sanders shot back, "Well, I'm your Democratic opponent, I release it, here it is," Sanders said, pretending to toss his own transcripts into the air. "There ain't nothing! I don't give speeches to Wall Street for hundreds of thousands of dollars."
5) Sanders says the Democrats aren't always right. Clinton supports the Export-Import Bank's assistance to small businesses, but Sanders voiced his opposition to the bank, a federal agency that lends money to businesses that export their goods globally. CNN's Anderson Cooper asked Sanders to explain why, pointing out that every other member of the Democratic caucus supports the Export-Import Bank. "You're agreeing with Senator Ted Cruz on this," said Cooper. "Well, I don't want to break the bad news," Sanders responded. "Democrats are not always right."
6) CNN anchor Don Lemon asks about "racial blind spots." "In a speech about policing, the FBI director borrowed a phrase from the Broadway musical Avenue Q, saying, 'Everybody is a little racist,'" said Lemon. "On a personal front, what racial blind spots do you have?" Both candidates pledged to address institutional racism but acknowledged they couldn't fully understand what it's like to be a person of color in America. "I can't pretend to have the experience that you have had and others have had," said Clinton. "But I will do everything that I possibly can to not only do the best to understand and to empathize, but to tear down the barriers of systemic racism."
7) Hillary slams Bernie about guns. Clinton and Sanders clashed about the liability of gun manufacturers for deadly shooting situations after Anderson Cooper mentioned a lawsuit filed by the parents of children killed in the 2013 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. In 2005, Sanders voted for a bill that gives legal immunity to gun manufacturers, and he tried to explain his position. An incensed Clinton cut in: "That is like the NRA position. No." She insisted on finishing her point as Cooper tried to move the debate forward. "I want people in this audience to think about what it must feel like to send off your first grader—little backpack, maybe, on his or her back—and then the next thing you hear is that somebody has come to that school using an automatic weapon, an AR-15, and murdered those children."
8) Bernie and Hillary talk fracking. In response to a University of Michigan student's question about each candidates' support of fracking, Clinton presented a laundry list of conditions that companies would have to meet in order to frack safely, before concluding that "by the time we get through all of my conditions, I do not think there will be many places in America where fracking will continue to take place." Sanders countered, "My answer is much shorter: No, I do not support fracking."
9) Bernie mentions mental health…of the Republican candidates. The Democratic candidates did not address the implosion of the Republican Party or Donald Trump. The closest they got was during exchange when Clinton said, "Compare the substance of this debate with what you saw on the Republican stage last week." Sanders added, "When you watch these Republicans debate, you know why we need to invest in mental health." The conversation quickly moved on, without additional details on improving the mental health system.
10) Bernie talks frankly about Judaism, and Hillary talks about prayer. Sanders is Jewish, but he has not spent much time discussing his religion on the campaign trail. When he was asked about keeping his Judaism "in the background," Sanders spoke frankly about what it was like growing up with the knowledge that his father's family was wiped out by the Holocaust. "I know about what crazy and radical and extremist politics mean," he said. "I am very proud of being Jewish and that is an essential part of who I am as a human being." Clinton, who has spoken more extensively about her religious faith, was asked about prayer. She said she prays regularly for those going through difficult times and for those in positions of authority. "I am a praying person," she said. "And if I haven't been during the time I was in the White House, I would have become one. Because it's very hard to imagine living under that kind of pressure without being able to fall back on prayer and on my faith."
In oral arguments for Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt, the court's liberal flank fired off one tough question after another.
Hannah LevintovaMar. 2, 2016 7:45 PM
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in front of the Supreme Court on March 2, 2016
After months of anticipation, with anti-abortion and pro-choice demonstrators gathered outside, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments today in Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt, the case about a 2013 Texas abortion law, HB 2, that groups on both sides of the debate consider to be one of the most important in decades. "The Texas requirements undermine the careful balance…between states' legitimate interests in regulating abortion and women's fundamental liberty to make personal decisions about their pregnancies," Stephanie Toti, the attorney for Whole Woman's Health, told the justices Wednesday morning.
The death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia last month means that the high court lost an outspoken opponent of abortion. Without Scalia on the bench, court watchers focused on Justice Anthony Kennedy—the most unpredictable vote in this case, and thus likely the most important. Kennedy has historically wavered on abortion—in the 1992 case Planned Parenthood v. Casey, Kennedy famously changed his mind at the last minute, leading to the court's 5-4 decision to reaffirm Roe v. Wade. If he sides with the conservative justices in this case, the court will deadlock in a 4-4 decision, which would mean the 2015 ruling of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals to uphold HB 2 in full will stand, and closures of Texas abortion clinics will follow.
At the center of the case are two provisions of HB 2. One requires all clinics where abortions are performed to meet the standards of ambulatory surgical centers, hospital-like facilities usually used to perform outpatient surgeries. The other provision requires all doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges to local hospitals.
The Texas health department argues that these provisions are necessary to protect women's health—a standard that was established in 1992 in Casey as a legitimate reason for states to pass abortion restrictions. Casey also established, however, that the state's interest in women's health has to be weighed against whether an abortion law would place an "undue burden" on women seeking abortion care. This is where the plaintiff's argument lies. Whole Woman's Health, which runs three abortion clinics in Texas, argues that the burdens on women created by HB 2—clinic closures across the state that have forced thousands of women to travel hundreds of miles for abortion care—far outweigh any interest in protection of women's health that Texas has.They point to many medical groups, including the American Medical Association, that have said ambulatory surgical facilities and admitting-privileges requirements are not necessary to provide safe abortion care.
For a number of the justices, this medical disagreement was their central focus. Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked an early question about medical abortions—in which a woman terminates a pregnancy without surgery, usually at home, by taking a combination of pills prescribed by a physician. Under HB 2, Texas women must still go to an ambulatory surgical center to have this medical abortion. Sotomayor asked if any other pill-only medical treatments—those used to treat some types of cancer, for example—are subject to a similar requirements to be performed at an ambulatory surgical center.
"None, your honor," responded Toti.
Justices Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts asked Toti to outline the evidence suggesting that these closures are a direct result of HB 2. She pointed out that 20 clinics closed in the wake of HB 2, including 11 on the day the admitting-privileges requirement went into effect. Both justices didn't seem satisfied that this demonstrated a causality between the law and clinic closures, and they asked for additional evidence. Justice Kagan reminded the court that in the two weeks when HB 2's ambulatory surgical center requirement was active in 2014—after the 5th Circuit court allowed it to go forward and before the Supreme Court intervened with an emergency hold—more than a dozen clinics closed. As soon as the Supreme Court pulled the law back, the clinics reopened.
"It's almost like the perfect controlled experiment as to the effect of the law, isn't it?" asked Kagan. "It's like you put the law into effect, 12 clinics closed. You take the law out of effect, they reopen."
When Texas Solicitor General Scott Keller stepped up to present his arguments on behalf of the state's health department, Justices Ruth BaderGinsburg, Stephen Breyer, Kagan, and Sotomayorpiled on. Ginsburg asked Keller how many Texas women live more than 100 miles from their nearest clinic. Keller said 25 percent, not including the women in El Paso who can access an abortion clinic that is in New Mexico, just one mile past the Texas border.
"That's odd that you point to the New Mexico facility," said Ginsburg. How could Texas argue that the HB 2 provisions are essential to women's health, while also arguing that Texas women aren't burdened by HB 2 because they can access abortions in New Mexico, where clinics aren't subject to HB 2-like provisions? "Send them off to New Mexico, where they don't get either, no admitting privileges, no ASC," said Ginsburg, referring to ambulatory surgical centers. "And that's perfectly all right. Well, if that's all right for the women in the El Paso area, why isn't it right for the rest of the women in Texas?" Keller's answer circumvented Ginsburg's point: He said that this is a standard of care that Texas believes abortion clinics should achieve, and that the New Mexico clinic is just one mile across the border from Texas.
Justice Kennedy asked Keller about another potential wrinkle in the state's women's health argument: He noted that while medication abortions are rising in the rest of the country, data suggests they are going down in Texas and being replaced by a rising rate of surgical abortions, a switch that Kennedy said "may not be medically wise." And Justice Breyer asked Keller to provide examples, from before the enactment of HB 2's admitting-privileges requirement, of women who had abortion complications and were unable to get care at a hospital. Keller conceded that such examples weren't in the record provided to the court.
Breyer followed up: "What is the benefit to the woman of a procedure that is going to cure a problem of which there is not one single instance in the nation?"
In answering this barrage of questions from the court's liberal flank, Keller often returned to variations on the same point: abortions can lead to complications. Justice Ginsburg took him to task over this in one memorable moment. Childbirth, she said, is a much riskier procedure than abortion. Keller responded by saying that one of the amicus briefs filed in the case disputes that fact. Ginsburg shot back, with a hint of exasperation, "Is there really any dispute that childbirth is a much riskier procedure than an early-stage abortion?"
Why is Texas creating more stringent restrictions for abortion than for other medical procedures that are far more risky? Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, Kagan, and Sotomayor each posedversions of this question to Keller.Breyer wondered why abortions were treated more strictly than colonoscopies, while Kagan made the same argument regarding liposuction. Keller argued that Supreme Court precedent allows Texas to treat abortion with different medical standards than other procedures. In response, Kagan hinted at a question that pro-choice advocates have raised since HB 2 first became law: Might Texas have passed this law to make abortions harder to obtain, rather than out of an authentic health interest? "You say you're allowed to make this choice, and we can argue about that," Kagan said. "I just want to know why Texas would make it."
With votes still being counted, Hillary Clinton is projected to win Democratic primaries in six states and is leading in several more. Clinton addressed her cheering supporters from the Ice Palace Film Studios in Miami, thanking her volunteers, organizers, and small-dollar donors while touching on issues such as equal pay for women, student loans, inclusiveness and religious diversity, and reinvigorating the middle class. She leveled her attacks less on her Democratic opponent, Bernie Sanders, than on the GOP front-runner, Donald Trump. She riffed off several of Trump's favorite phrases: "We know we've got work to do. But that work is not to make America great again," she said, to raucous applause. "America never stopped being great. We need to make America whole again." Watch her victory speech here: