WASHINGTON — One year after the leak of a draft Supreme Court opinion marked the beginning of the end of the national right to an abortion, the Senate’s top appropriator and president pro tempore warned against taking the foot off the gas pedal in Democrats’ fight to protect and expand access to abortion.
“I think it’s really important that we show people that we are fighting for this,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., in an interview Wednesday with CQ Roll Call. “You do not win any battle that you don’t get into and that you don’t fight for.”
While both supporters and opponents of abortion rights had long warned the change was inevitable, the May 3, 2022, leak of Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.’s draft decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization galvanized the two sides further.
The year since has been a flurry of action on the state and federal level, with different sides seeking to either protect abortion rights or limit access to the procedure. It’s also seen a patchwork of changing policies.
Days after the leak last May, the Senate voted and fell short a second time that year on legislation to codify abortion rights and limit state restrictions to the procedure. The Senate will likely vote on the bill again soon, but it is unlikely it would pass the 60-vote threshold.
Republicans, too, have sought to increase the ruling’s impact. Last year, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called for a national limit on abortions conducted after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
“I do believe over time in a post-Dobbs world, Americans are going to come to a consensus on this issue,” Graham said during an April 26 hearing this year, adding, “the more we learn about the unborn child, the more we understand how it develops, the more we’re going to have a consensus in this country that there needs to be a point in time … where we draw a line.”
Murray, too, introduced bills on the issue, including one that would protect physicians’ ability to provide legal reproductive health care, one to expand access to birth control pills when they are approved for over-the-counter use and one to help women with disabilities access reproductive services. She tried twice, unsuccessfully, to seek unanimous consent for a vote on the provider bill, reintroducing it again in March.
But 2023 has been a challenge for Democrats, with Republicans now holding the majority in the House. The House took its first votes on abortion this year in January.
“This is what is so important for people to know: The battle over women’s health care doesn’t just happen once,” she said. “It happens in a lot of the bills that we worked on.”
She said in the aftermath of the decision, even seemingly unrelated bills have increasingly become battlegrounds over abortion. She said one of the last pieces Republicans pushed for before the passage of a postal overhaul law was language that would have restricted “a woman’s right to get reproductive health care through the mail.”
And Senate military nominations have been stalled this year because of a Republican hold spurred by the Pentagon’s post-Dobbs abortion policy.
“This is not a single bill, single process, a single anything for Republicans,” said Murray. “We gotta fight it every single committee, every single backroom, every single discussion, every single negotiation, and I will not stop.”
Murray, who rose to the top spot on the Appropriations Committee this year, sees that role as another platform to fight to protect access to reproductive health.
The Senate’s fiscal 2023 draft Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations bill, which Murray headed last year, omitted two longstanding annual riders that restrict most federal funding for abortion and prohibit discrimination against facilities and health plans that do not cover, provide or refer for abortions.
Neither made it into law, but Murray is determined to follow that process again.
We are “absolutely fighting any single initiative anywhere in any of our appropriations bills that seeks to take away a woman’s right to make her own health care choices,” she said.
She sees another hurdle in protecting access to and increasing funding for contraception.
Appropriations for Title X, the federal family planning program, have been flat for nine years, even while the demand for contraception and other services have increased. The White House budget seeks to increase funding by 79 percent over the enacted level to $512 million. The appropriations process could provide a pathway to boost that funding.
Appropriations ranking member Susan Collins of Maine is one of two Senate Republicans who support abortion rights, though Title X funding does not cover abortion. Murray acknowledged that Collins is “a good partner” in seeking increased funds, but added, “the fact is, and Susan would tell you if you asked her, she needs 10 Republicans that are behind her, and that’s a challenge.”
Reproductive rights advocates have warned that the Dobbs decision could put at risk other rights previously established by the high court, including the right to contraception.
“We are having to think in a different way,” Murray said. “How do we not just defend what they might take away, but how do we protect things so they don’t take it away.”
She said Democrats are exploring how to get enough broad support to codify the right to contraception.
“I can’t tell you we have 60 votes for anything right now, because we don’t,” she said, adding as more people experience challenges to accessing reproductive health, the public outcry will increase. “There’s going to be more of a public process where people say, I’m not going to vote for you unless you assure me that you’re going to protect this.”
Murray, who defeated Republican Tiffany Smiley last year with 57 percent of the vote, emphasized her work to protect abortion rights in the lead-up to the election.
She said voters have been supportive of reproductive rights, and predicts that support will continue as people see the “serious health impacts for women,” and pointed to testimony during a hearing last week where a Texas woman spoke about entering septic shock before she could seek treatment.
“I think what has changed for the good is that people in the country now are watching,” she said. “Now people get it.”