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House, Senate panels examine impact of state abortion restrictions after Roe reversal

State officials, abortion advocates and legal and medical experts testified on the effect of post-Roe abortion restrictions.
Pro-abortion rights supporters protest outside the Supreme Court on May 3, 2022.
Pro-abortion rights supporters protest outside the Supreme Court on May 3, 2022.Valerie Plesch for NBC News

WASHINGTON — House and Senate committees heard testimony Wednesday from state officials, abortion rights advocates and legal and medical experts about the impact the Supreme Court's reversal of Roe v. Wade has had in states that have imposed limits on abortion.

At the hearings, the members of the panels heard about abortion providers worried about breaking state laws restricting abortions and concerns over access, while Republicans emphasized that the Supreme Court's ruling simply handed the issue back to state legislatures. Democrats warned that the GOP did not intend to stop there.

“Today’s hearing is especially important because Republicans are not going to stop with Dobbs,” House Oversight Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., said in her opening statement. “They are openly planning to impose a national ban on abortion. The damage that would cause is inconceivable.”

“As we hear about the impact of the loss of abortion rights today, I would like to ask those watching our hearing a simple question: Is this the country we want for our children?” Maloney continued. “Do we want a country where our children have fewer rights than we did? Or do we want to live in a country that respects and trusts women to make the best choices for themselves and their families? The answer is clear. Americans overwhelmingly support the right to abortion.”

The hearings focused on the nearly half of states where abortion has been or may soon be banned and actions proposed by Democrats to protect and expand the right to an abortion. Among those testifying before the House panel were Democratic Michigan state Sen. Mallory McMorrow, Democratic Georgia House Rep. Renitta Shannon, National Women’s Law Center President Fatima Goss Graves, and Alliance Defending Freedom senior counsel Erin Hawley, the wife of Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo. The committee tried to get abortion providers to testify, some of whom have experienced violence, but they were too afraid to appear and share their stories, Maloney said.

In his opening remarks, House Oversight Committee ranking member James Comer, R-Ky., defended the Supreme Court ruling, saying the Dobbs decision “did not outlaw abortion” but simply returned the issue to the states — a point Republicans made repeatedly during the hearings.

Comer criticized Democrats for attacking the high court’s legitimacy and “seeking to intimidate through thinly veiled threats.” Democrats are trying to “draw attention away from the failures of the Biden administration — failures that have led to skyrocketing inflation, record-high gas prices, a frightening shortage of baby formula and the worst border crisis in the history of America,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee heard from various pro-abortion organizations, including Planned Parenthood. Committee chair, Patty Murray, D-Wash., pushed back on the assertion by Republican members that the Supreme Court ruling simply put the issue of abortion back in the hands of state legislatures.

“Republicans are still trying to push this ridiculous, ridiculous, patently false notion that they aren’t oppressing women so much is leaving it to states and local officials and politicians to oppress them,” Murray said. “That’s dishonest. They know full well many women are not able to travel. They don’t have time off. They don’t have childcare and they don’t have the funds.”

“The willful ignorance of how deadly these policies are, even when these courageous witnesses today are doing everything they can to tell their story and make us listen is not ... unexpected. But it is very disappointing,” Murray said. “You can’t spin away ripping away someone’s rights, taking control over their body, denying someone medication or taking away their plans for their future. You can’t spin putting someone’s life in jeopardy.”

Dr. Kristyn Brandi, of Physicians for Reproductive Health, told senators that state abortion bans were affecting how physicians treat patients, including withholding critical treatment.

“It’s incredibly hard to think about being in that position where I can’t intervene because I have to call my lawyer first to make sure that it’s okay,” she said. “Or that I’m going to wait, wait and wait until somebody gets sicker because I don’t know what that law means. And we’re seeing that across the country. I’m hearing stories from all over from physicians that are withholding lifesaving care, because they don’t want to go to jail. That’s really not how health care should work.”

Goss Graves, of the National Women’s Law Center, similarly testified that she "cannot overstate how much legal uncertainty and chaos that this Supreme Court has unleashed with this unsound opinion," resulting in people facing "vague and evolving and even sometimes conflicting state laws."

"Employers and schools and city governments, they’re all buried under the weight of this explosion," she said. "Clinics and health care professionals, they’re trying to make sense of this shifting landscape. Patients are confused and they are scared about their rights and they as individuals are forced to navigate an uncertain legal landscape. Many cannot travel including those who can’t afford it."

Michigan Rep. McMorrow noted that while her state has a 1931 trigger law that makes providing an abortion a felony, with no exception for age, rape or incest, the procedure is still legal because of a preliminary injunction blocking the law's enforcement. She defended maintaining and increasing access to abortion services.

“Every situation is different," McMorrow said. "Every individual and family seeking abortion care does so for different reasons. Sometimes birth control fails. Sometimes a family already has children and knows that they cannot support anymore for so many others. Getting pregnant is hard and staying pregnant, safely and healthily is even harder."

Georgia Rep. Shannon spoke about having an abortion 20 years ago and facing "significant unnecessary burdens." Over the last two decades, she said, "barriers to accessing abortion care have only increased, exacerbating an ongoing public health crisis defined by more maternal deaths increasing poverty and greater inequality overall."

"The Dobbs decision will amount to structural violence for many communities, but most egregiously for black, brown, indigenous people of color and people with disabilities, LGBTQ+ people and people living at the intersection of these identities who have already sustained centuries of oppression and lack of access to reproductive freedom," Shannon said.

Hawley, the only witness invited by Republicans, called Roe "terrible constitutional law" and said there's "no such thing as an unwanted child." She said abortion "treats babies as mere objects, even while science establishes that babies are both fully alive, and fully human." Hawley also said that many companies are "eager" to help pay for women to end their pregnancies but questioned how many of them offer to pay for diapers, child care or permit flexible work schedules.

The Supreme Court overturned Roe in a 5-4 decision on June 24 — nearly 50 years after the landmark ruling — in a case it heard on Mississippi's abortion ban, which the court ruled 6-3 to uphold.

The House is scheduled to vote this week on two abortion rights bills, including legislation to codify the abortion rights that were guaranteed under Roe v. Wade and to bar states from trying to stop women from going out-of-state for abortions, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a letter to her colleagues. Neither bill has a chance of passing in the Senate because of Republican opposition.

President Joe Biden signed an executive order last week that aims to safeguard access to reproductive health care services, including abortion and contraception; protect patients’ privacy and access to accurate information; and promote the safety and security of patients, providers and clinics.

Biden and top Democrats have been urging people to turn out to vote in November to elect pro-abortion rights candidates and have been warning that Republicans intend to enact a federal abortion ban.