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The Lilith Blog 1 of 2

December 11, 2019 by

The Threat to Abortion Rights You Might Not Know About

Imagine you go to purchase birth control, but find it is no longer available.

Imagine you want an abortion, but there are no clinics left in your state.

Imagine you want to start a family and struggle with getting pregnant, so you research and turn to in vitro fertilization (IVF) and surrogacy, only to find out they’re illegal.

Imagine at every phase of family planning, your right to have a child, prevent an unwanted pregnancy, or seek an abortion – rights that should be protected by the Constitution – have been taken away.

It sounds like an episode of the Handmaid’s Tale. But last week, when Sarah Pitlyk was confirmed as a judge on the US District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, it became a very real scenario for millions of women who want to make their own decisions on how, when, and if they should have children.

Who is Pitlyk? Fair question. She’s hardly a household name. That’s because the federal bench, unlike the Supreme Court, is rarely in the national spotlight. If you polled your friends on the makeup of the federal courts, chances are most of them will have to reach back to a high school civics lesson to remember. 

The answer: when full, there are 677 district court and 179 circuit court judges. That’s 856 people empowered to protect the Constitution, keep state legislatures in check, and make decisions that shape our everyday lives: our right to vote, to practice our religion freely, to live in a clean environment, and to get pregnant when and if we choose.

And they have that power for the rest of their lives. Here’s a little-known fact: federal judges serve lifetime appointments. That means that no matter who is sitting in the Oval Office in a few years or even decades, Pitlyk and an unprecedented number of right-wing federal judges personally nominated by President Trump will still be sitting on the bench. As a direct result, generations of women could lose their reproductive rights. They will lose them on our watch. 

What has Pitlyk done to earn this lifetime seat on the judiciary? Dedicated her career to restricting women’s health care. 

In addition to arguing that frozen embryos used for IVF are human beings, she’s advocated for companies to deny employees coverage for contraceptive services, and defended the anti-abortion activists behind fraudulent videos of Planned Parenthood.

She’s in good – or terrifying – company. In less than three years since President Trump took office, he has nominated and the Senate has confirmed 170 judges who hold lifetime appointments in our federal courts. That’s 20% of the total judgeships in the United States.

These are judges who hold incredibly dangerous ideological beliefs and are stripping women of our rights slowly but surely, in countless insidious ways.

They include Lee Rudofsky, US District Judge for the Eastern District of Arkansas, who helped make Arkansas the only state to terminate Medicaid program funding to Planned Parenthood. William S. Stickman, US District Judge for the Western District of Pennsylvania, who compared abortion to the deaths of civilians during the Iraq war. Brian Buescher, US District Judge for the District of Nebraska, who pledged to ban abortion. Steven Grasz, US Circuit Judge for the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, who called abortion a “barbaric procedure.”

Just yesterday, the Senate voted to end debate on the nomination of Lawrence VanDyke on the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. He is scheduled for a confirmation vote today. VanDyke advocated for a 20-week abortion ban in Arizona. Next month, Andrew Brasher could take the bench in the Eleventh Circuit. He defended an Alabama law that would have allowed judges to appoint attorneys for a fetus.

It isn’t often that you see crowds protesting outside of Federal District Courts, as thousands did in D.C. during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings.

It is time for that to change. 

When Kavanaugh was confirmed, countless women took to the streets outside the United States Capitol. I was proud to stand among them alongside advocates with the National Council of Jewish Women, the organization that I now lead. We must harness that energy in our local communities, too. Federal courts, unlike a bill in Congress or a legislative push in a state house, seem distant to most voters. But changing them is completely within reach. And women can and should drive that change – before, during and after these judges are nominated. Democrat and Republican members of Congress need to be held responsible for allowing the undermining of our courts. Those who voted to confirm Pitlyk and judges who share her extremist views need to hear and see our anger. Those who didn’t need to make it clear how they plan to protect our rights from judges like Pitlyk. It is up to all of us – feminists and allies – to flood their phone lines, mailboxes, and streets and demand they work to restore a fair and independent judiciary.

There is no place for extreme ideologues like Pitlyk on the federal bench. The more the court gets politicized, the more vulnerable our entire democracy is. It is up to us to protect it. 

Sheila Katz is the CEO of the National Council for Jewish Women, the 125-year-old progressive nonprofit fighting to ensure a fair and independent judiciary and to protect women’s reproductive health, rights and justice.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.