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In Committee: Women Senators, Reproductive Rights and the 2012 Elections

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Half of the United States' incumbent Democratic women senators are up for reelection next year. And as the Huffington Post's Amanda Terkel pointed out earlier this month, since women's political fate tends to be tied to the political fate of Democrats overall, next year's elections pose a very real threat to some of the most powerful pro-woman, pro-choice voices in Congress.

Fewer pro-choice women in the Senate would mean fewer advocates for women's health, safety, and reproductive freedom. But beyond the numbers, losing pro-choice women lawmakers who serve on key committees could destabilize a critical firewall blocking anti-choice legislation and judicial appointments from moving through the Senate.

Why look at Senate committees? It is in these committees where real legislative negotiations take place and where real political capital is accrued. In fact, it was during a Finance Committee debate about the Affordable Care Act that Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) famously overrode the objections of Republican Sen. John Kyl to ensure that the final health care bill included insurance provisions for maternity and newborn care.

Today, each of the Senate's 20 standing committees, from Agriculture to Veterans' Affairs, has at least one woman member. Importantly, women chair one-quarter of these committees: Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) chairs the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry; Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) chairs the Committee on Environment and Public Works; Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) chairs the Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship; and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) chairs the Committee on Veterans' Affairs.

That could change next year, when three Senate committees -- Agriculture, Finance, and Judiciary -- run the risk of losing all of their current women members. Two of these committees, Judiciary and Finance, are important battlegrounds in the fight for (and against) reproductive freedom.

This fight will continue in 2012. In a campaign field littered with early promises to roll back abortion rights and limit abortion access, you can bet that a Republican presidential win would mean the appointment of new anti-choice federal judges. Republican gains in Congress also would bring new attacks on existing federal legislation that allows women access to abortions.

As the Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes recently reminded us, the "ultimate goal of pro-lifers remains what it's always been: overturning Roe v. Wade." In the interim, says Barnes, the strategy relies on "vitiating Roe without overturning it. The key is to burden the abortion industry with intrusive regulations," and to pass more laws restricting abortions. In other words, the core strategies of the anti-choice movement track perfectly with the jurisdictions of the Judiciary and Finance committees.

Even if Republicans win the presidency next year and gain the ability to appoint Supreme Court Justices, it's unlikely that the Judiciary Committee will see a Supreme Court confirmation hearing before 2015, the year when pro-choice Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has indicated that she may retire. But Judiciary also oversees the appointment of federal judges, who as we've recently seen in North Carolina, Idaho and Texas increasingly are called upon to block enforcement of intrusive anti-abortion laws passed at the state level.

At the federal level, GOP legislators have tried to repeal sections of the Affordable Care Act that allow access to abortion. This past summer in the Finance Committee, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) slyly filed an amendment to the U.S.-Korea Trade bill that would have prohibited medical facilities that provide abortions from receiving funds from Medicaid. The bill was later passed in October, without Hatch's amendment.

Just last month we saw one of the most vile pieces of anti-choice legislation in recent history make its way through the House of Representatives. The so-called "Protect Life Act" (renamed the "Let Women Die Act" by women's health advocates) would have allowed hospitals receiving federal funds to refuse abortions to women even in situations where it is necessary to protect the woman's life or health. The bill subsequently was introduced to the Senate Finance Committee (again by Sen. Hatch) but did not make its way out of committee.

We need women Senators on the Finance Committee to ensure that such measures don't make their way to the Senate floor, where choice legislation can undergo vicious, divisive debate. And we need women Senators on the Judiciary Committee to filter out activist anti-choice judges who undoubtedly will be nominated if Republicans capture the presidency. Republicans elected in 2012 will try to fulfill their campaign promises to roll back the clock on reproductive rights -- it's up to all of us to make sure that Democratic women continue to stand in their way.

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33 out of 100 seats are up for election. 51 are needed for a majority.
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