Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg described the United States as a “pendulum,” saying that when it “swings too far in one direction; it will go back.” She was optimistic about America’s future, and we are, too, even as we mourn her death and celebrate her life and judicial legacy.
During her tenure on the United States Supreme Court, Justice Ginsburg authored historic decisions supporting gender equality and blistering dissents when the majority on the court deserved it. This past term, she displayed her compassion for the plight of working women by dissenting in Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania, which upheld the Trump administration’s expansive religious and moral exemptions for employers who object to providing contraceptive coverage in group health plans. She criticized this decision for “leav[ing] women workers to fend for themselves, to seek contraceptive coverage from sources other than their employer’s insurer, and, absent another available source of funding, to pay for contraceptive services out of their own pockets.”
Calling out the court’s egregious error, Justice Ginsburg acknowledged the practical realities of women impacted by the ruling who would immediately lose access to no-cost contraceptive services, an essential component of health care and economic stability.
Justice Ginsburg was a champion of reproductive rights and freedom. With the fight underway to fill her seat with a sixth conservative judge, there is reason to worry that the Supreme Court will overturn or limit Roe v. Wade, eviscerating our liberty right under the United States Constitution to choose to have an abortion.
The composition of the court aside, politicians have been advancing restrictive abortion laws in state legislatures at an alarming rate. Since 2011, state legislatures have passed over 400 restrictive laws, and in the first half of 2020 alone introduced 236 provisions to restrict abortion access. This concerted strategy to undermine meaningful access to abortion has already left our most vulnerable communities, including poor women and women of color, in a world without Roe. Indeed, when asked about the possibility of Roe being overturned, Justice Ginsburg stated: “There is no woman of means in the United States who will not be able to get a safe abortion if she wants one … all of the restrictions [of abortion] operate only against poor women” — including those who cannot afford time off work to travel to the nearest clinic.
Justice Ginsburg never gave up when facing a challenge, and neither will we. There is little doubt that Roe is in jeopardy, but opponents of abortion need to know that our basic human right to self-determination, including whether to have children or not and to raise our families with dignity, is nonnegotiable. We must demand Roe remain good law under the United States Constitution and shore up our rights in the states.
At the Women’s Law Project, we are working to ensure robust judicial interpretation of the Equal Rights Amendment and equal protection provisions under the Pennsylvania Constitution. We advocate for evidence-based legislation that will improve the health, economic security, and safety of women, people of color, LGBTQ individuals, and their families, as we see all these issues as connected.
Currently, there are a number of bills pending in Pennsylvania to address the systemic oppression that devalues the lives and labor of women and people of color, often specifically threatening their reproductive health. The bills would raise the minimum wage (HB 1215/SB 12), protect pregnant workers from discrimination (HB 1417), protect workers who pump at work (HB 1177), provide paid family leave (HB 1739/SB 580), close loopholes in our state equal pay law (HB 850/SB 721), expand access to contraception (HB 2813), protect LGBTQ workers from discrimination (HB 1404), address systemic racism in health care and maternal mortality, which disproportionately affects Black women (HB 2109; HB 2108; HB 2107; and HB 2110), and limit the use of restraints on pregnant incarcerated and detained individuals (HB 2223). These are a fraction of the legislation we need, but an important start.
How do we make these laws a reality? As Justice Ginsburg powerfully stated at her confirmation hearings, “Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.” The first step is to vote in every election. Our rights and our lives are on the line, and our government is accountable to us. Let’s not let them forget it.
Amal Bass is the director of policy and advocacy and Christine Castro is a staff attorney at the Women’s Law Project, a public interest legal organization that focuses on protecting and expanding the rights of women, girls, and LGBTQ+ people in Pennsylvania and beyond.