Opinion: The hazard of confirming an anti-abortion U.S. Supreme Court justice days before an election

We are in the middle of another October week in which women are being asked to take stock of their place in American politics and their relationships to the men who would explain things to them.

On Monday, the Senate Judiciary Committee will begin hearings on the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Abortion will be an undercurrent throughout the committee sessions, which will take place in a hybrid setting — part in-person and part virtual. Two GOP members of the panel have tested positive for the coronavirus.

Barrett is on record. In 2006, she put her name to a newspaper ad that declared, “It’s time to put an end to the barbaric legacy of Roe v. Wade.”

But GOP senators are almost certain to soft-pedal any threat she poses to the 1973 ruling. And Democrats are just as likely to emphasize what her presence on the bench might mean for the Affordable Care Act on Nov. 10, when the Supreme Court hears a Trump administration-backed case challenging its constitutionality.

This is one of the many things we learned from last week’s one and only vice-presidential debate between U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, the Democrat from California and Mike Pence, the Republican incumbent.

Though there’s no evidence that it was intentional, Wednesday, Oct. 7, was an awkward date for a confrontation that featured the first woman of color on a national ticket.

Last Wednesday was the fourth anniversary of the surfacing of the “Access Hollywood” recording. On that day in 2016, America heard Trump brag about the license that being a celebrity gave him to sexually assault women — i.e., grabbing their genitals. White women voters in Georgia were inclined to forgive Trump then, but appear less so today.

On a brighter note, the vice-presidential debate was preceded hours earlier by news that two women researchers — Jennifer Doudna, an American, and Emmanuelle Charpentier of France — had been awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry. The pair are responsible for developing a gene-editing tool already being used to battle diseases.

It was the first time in 119 years that a Nobel Prize had gone to an all-female team. Which raises the prospect of the same thing happening in presidential politics — perhaps by the end of the century.

By now, you have probably chewed through many accounts of the Harris-Pence meeting. Harris swung for the fences when it came to a pandemic that has killed more than 210,000. “The American people have witnessed what is the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country,” she said.

Pence, who chairs the White House coronavirus task force, said that to criticize President Donald Trump’s COVID policy was on par with kneeling during the national anthem. "When you say what the American people have done over these last eight months hasn’t worked, that’s a great disservice to the sacrifices the American people have made,' he said.

The incumbent vice president talked over the moderator, Susan Page of USA Today, and over Harris. But Pence did it more politely than Trump did in his debate, and the senator from California was ready with a rapier smile. “Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking,” she stabbed.

The moderator asked many splendid questions, and both candidates did their best not to answer them. Noting Barrett’s pending Senate confirmation hearing, Page theorized that if Roe v. Wade is overturned, access to abortion would be up to individual states.

To Pence: What would you advise Indiana to do? Page asked.

The Hoosier replied that he would prefer to talk about the U.S. assassination of Qasem Soleimani, the Iranian general — and did so.

After several minutes, Pence got around to saying that he would “never presume” to guess how Barrett might rule on abortion once she’s on the Supreme Court. And he threw in this falsehood: “Joe Biden and Kamala Harris support taxpayer funding of abortion all the way up to the moment of birth.”

Page tossed a similar question at Harris, who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee and will be one of those questioning Barrett.

Harris, too, preferred not to jump straight into an answer, criticizing the GOP haste to confirm Barrett before the Nov. 3 election. But she eventually got there: “There’s the issue of choice and I will always fight for a woman’s right to make a decision about her own body.”

And then Harris quickly pivoted to a far more unifying message that we’re likely to hear again on Monday. “The contrast couldn’t be more clear. They’re trying to get rid of the Affordable Care Act,” she said.

Forty-seven years later, Roe v. Wade remains a minefield for both parties. But outside that Senate hearing room, the pendulum may be swinging in a Democratic direction.

It is true that Barrett was the choice of white Christian evangelicals who play a crucial role in Trump’s reelection plans. But it is also true that for the past two decades, anti-abortion forces — particularly in Georgia — have tightened their definition of what it means to be called “pro-life,” an essential label for victory in Republican primaries.

To the point that it is chasing many women away from the GOP.

The push reached an apex last year, when the Republican-controlled state Legislature approved, and Gov. Brian Kemp signed, a measure that prohibited nearly all abortions in Georgia — and bestowed the legal status of “personhood” on embryos.

A federal judge enjoined the new law, but it remains one of the more important factors in the shifting politics of suburban Atlanta, and — along with antipathy toward Trump — could help undermine GOP control of the state House on Nov. 3.

State Rep. Deborah Silcox, R-Sandy Springs, was one of a handful of GOP women who broke ranks and voted against it in 2019. House District 52 is one of 20 or more targeted by Democrats as potential pick-ups.

Just north of her Sandy Springs territory is Senate District 56, held by John Albers, R-Roswell, a 10-year veteran of the Legislature. He’s attempting to weather a challenge from Democrat Sarah Beeson.

Days ago, she sent out a Twitter message to her followers. It included a copy of a form that Albers had filled out — apparently for a pro-life organization. It endorsed a ban on abortion that included no exceptions for rape, incest or the life of the mother.

With it, Beeson used a phrase usually used only by Republicans. See if you can spot it: “Take it from my opponent in his own handwriting: John Albers is too radical for North Fulton,” Beeson wrote.

And that is why on Monday, when the Senate Judiciary Committee takes up the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court, Republicans, in particular, will try to make sure that Roe v. Wade stays in the background.