What A Week of Hearings Tells us About the Future of Abortion Politics

Five Senate and House committees spent more than 16 hours earlier this month holding hearings on one of the most contentious party-line issues of the day: the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization overturning Roe v. Wade

The moment that received the most widespread attention didn’t involve Dobbs or abortion, but was an exchange in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing between Republican Sen. Josh Hawley and Berkeley law professor Khiara Bridges over the latter’s use of the term “people with a capacity for pregnancy.” Even though the rest of the hearings, which included testimony from and questions to 25 witnesses, were filled with predictable partisan talking points—both parties accused each other of radicalism and being out of touch with the American electorate—the debates did provide insight on what the fault lines of the abortion debate may be for the coming months and years.

Perhaps receiving the most media attention since the Dobbs decision have been state abortion exceptions addressing the health and life of expectant mothers. In their hearings, members of Congress and witnesses contested the efficacy of these exceptions. Democrats condemned what Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center, called “vague, evolving, and even sometimes conflicting state laws” in the House Oversight and Reform hearing. According to Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin and numerous other Democrats, these laws have only “insufficient and confusing exceptions for the life of the mother.” As a result, they alleged, doctors are waiting to treat patients for ectopic pregnancies, miscarriages, and other pregnancy complications, and access to miscarriage-causing drugs for conditions entirely unrelated to pregnancy is being limited. 

Abortions are medically necessary “every single day,” according to Dr. Colleen McNicholas, chief medical officer for Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri. But, faced with new state laws, “Physicians … are literally calling hospital attorneys, who, in some cases, tell them to wait until there is a higher chance of death before intervening,” testified Dr. Jack Resneck, president of the American Medical Association, in the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of House Energy and Commerce hearing. “There’s not a line in the sand when someone goes from being totally fine, walking around, talking, smiling, to actively dying,” Dr. Nisha Verma, fellow at Physicians for Reproductive Health, said. “It’s a continuum. What I need to do, as a doctor, is to intervene earlier in that continuum to keep that person safe and healthy, but the laws are making it really unclear about whether I can do that.”

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