Amy Coney Barrett: what her Supreme Court nomination could mean for reproductive rights in America

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Lauren Geall
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Amy Coney Barrett

Donald Trump has nominated conservative judge Amy Coney Barrett to take over the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat in the US Supreme Court. But who is she, and what could her nomination mean for access to reproductive and abortion care in America? Stylist investigates.

Following Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death at the age of 87 last week, attention across America has been turned towards who might take over her seat on the US Supreme Court. It may seem shocking to see the conversation shift so quickly towards who will ‘replace’ Ginsburg – especially when she’s become the first woman to lie in state at the US Capitol – but with weeks to go until the 3 November election, her death has come at a particularly crucial time for American politics.

This was something that Ginsburg was all-too-aware of. In a statement from her death bed, she told her granddaughter that “my most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed”.

But despite this wish, Donald Trump has pushed ahead with the nomination of a new Supreme Court justice. This move comes after Republican senate majority leader Mitch McConnell vowed to move the process forward, despite refusing to do the same for Obama in the lead up to the 2016 election because he said it was too close to polling day. 

And the rush to replace Ginsburg before the November election was made clear yesterday when Trump officially announced his nomination of 48-year-old Amy Coney Barrett, a long-term academic, appeals court judge and staunch conservative, for the Supreme Court seat. 

Amy Coney Barrett speaks after Donald Trump reveals her nomination on 26 September.
Amy Coney Barrett speaks after Donald Trump reveals her nomination on 26 September.

This, to put things bluntly, is likely to be bad news for reproductive rights across America. Barrett is known for her conservative stance, and critics of Trump’s nominee fear her appointment – which would see the Supreme Court’s conservative edge become a powerful 6-3 majority – could lead to the restriction of abortion and reproductive care.

Barrett’s nomination comes at a crucial time in the debate surrounding reproductive rights in America. Over the last couple of years, states across the country have been introducing ‘heartbeat bills’ – laws which typically heavily restrict abortion after five or six weeks of pregnancy, despite most women not even realising they’re pregnant until around that stage. 

In light of Roe v Wade – the landmark 1973 ruling which said that the Constitution of the United States protects a pregnant woman’s liberty to choose to have an abortion without excessive government restriction – these heartbeat bills are unconstitutional and have therefore been legally challenged by reproductive rights groups.

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But, as Vox reports, a court battle is exactly what supporters of these heartbeat bills and other restrictive reproductive laws could be hoping for. If these laws are taken to the Supreme Court, and the court decides they are constitutional, or decide abortion can be restricted after a certain number of weeks, that ruling will effectively overturn the precedent set forth by Roe v Wade.

And that’s what makes Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court so worrying. Although White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany denied claims that Trump would ask any prospective nominee to “pre-judge” Roe, Trump has previously promised to appoint “pro-life justices” – and it seems Barrett’s conservative views could echo this wish. 

That’s not forgetting the fact that, alongside being a staunch conservative, Barrett has repeatedly demonstrated her commitment to restricting reproductive rights. Alongside previously describing abortion as “always immoral,” Barrett has an anti-abortion rights judicial record: during her three years on the 7th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, she has ruled on two-abortion related cases, both times favouring restrictions on access to abortion.

Abortion protestors in Washington in March
The debate over safe and legal abortion access has intensified during Trump's presidency.

On top of this, Barrett is on record criticising past judicial decisions which upheld the Affordable Care Act (ACA) – or Obamacare, as it is popularly known – the healthcare reform law which, alongside other things, requires most private healthcare plans in America to cover contraception with no out-of-pocket cost for the patient. This wouldn’t be so significant if the Supreme Court wasn’t due to hear arguments on whether to scrap the ACA altogether in November, by which time Barrett could be confirmed and could vote in favour of scrapping it.

However, there is hope that Barrett may not let her personal views get in the way of her work as a judge – something she has committed to in the past. When challenged about her comments about abortion being “always immoral” before her appointment to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, Barrett said that, in her confirmation to that role, “my views on this or any other question will have no bearing on the discharge of my duties as a judge”.

She has also defended her religious beliefs on multiple occasions. “I would stress that my personal church affiliation or my religious belief would not bear in the discharge of my duties as a judge,” she once said.

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What is left to be seen is whether Trump and the Republican majority senate are able to confirm Barrett’s position on the Supreme Court before the US election on 3 November. Having nine justices in place on the Court is important to Trump because he continues to claim that the Democrats are trying to rig the election, and he has said that he expects disputes over who has won the election to be resolved by the Supreme Court.

For now, we’ll just have to wait and see what Barrett will do with her appointment to the Supreme Court if she is confirmed by the Senate, and hope that her belief in not letting her views get in the way of her work is one she is able to carry into her new role. If confirmed, she will become the fifth woman ever to become a US Supreme Court justice. 

It’s safe to say a lot has happened in the US since Ginsburg’s death just over a week ago. And as attention turns back to the US election, the world waits anxiously to see what happens next. 

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Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and women’s issues. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time. You can find her on Twitter at @laurenjanegeall.