Reproductive Health Care Rights

Conservative State Courts Stir Trouble For GOP Legislators On Abortion

Abortion opponents have maneuvered in courthouses for years to end access to reproductive health care. In Arizona last week, a win for the anti-abortion camp caused political blowback for Republican candidates in the state and beyond.

The reaction echoed the response to an Alabama Supreme Court decision over in vitro fertilization just two months before.

The election-year ruling by the Arizona Supreme Court allowing enforcement of a law from 1864 banning nearly all abortions startled Republican politicians, some of whom quickly turned to social media to denounce it.

The court decision was yet another development forcing many Republicans legislators and candidates to thread the needle: Maintain support among anti-abortion voters while not damaging their electoral prospects this fall. This shifting power dynamic between state judges and state lawmakers has turned into a high-stakes political gamble, at times causing daunting problems, on a range of reproductive health issues, for Republican candidates up and down the ballot.

“When the U.S. Supreme Court said give it back to the states, OK, well now the microscope is on the states,” said Jennifer Piatt, co-director of the Center for Public Health Law and Policy at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. “We saw this in Alabama with the IVF decision,” she said, “and now we’re seeing it in Arizona.”

Multiple Republicans have criticized the Arizona high court’s decision on the 1864 law, which allows abortion only to save a pregnant woman’s life. “This decision cannot stand. I categorically reject rolling back the clock to a time when slavery was still legal and where we could lock up women and doctors because of an abortion,” state Rep. Matt Gress said in a video April 9. All four Arizona Supreme Court justices who said the long-dormant Arizona abortion ban could be enforced were appointed by former Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican who in 2016 expanded the number of state Supreme Court justices from five to seven and cemented the bench’s conservative majority.

Yet in a post the day of the ruling on the social platform X, Ducey said the decision “is not the outcome I would have preferred.”

The irony is that the decision came after years of efforts by Arizona Republicans “to lock in a conservative majority on the court at the same time that the state’s politics were shifting more towards the middle,” said Douglas Keith, senior counsel at the left-leaning Brennan Center for Justice.

All the while, anti-abortion groups have been pressuring Republicans to clearly define where they stand.

“Whether running for office at the state or federal level, Arizona Republicans cannot adopt the losing ostrich strategy of burying their heads in the sand on the issue of abortion and allowing Democrats to define them,” Kelsey Pritchard, a spokesperson for Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, said in an emailed statement. “To win, Republicans must be clear on the pro-life protections they support, express compassion for women and unborn children, and contrast their position with the Democrat agenda.”

Two months before the Arizona decision, the Alabama Supreme Court said frozen embryos from in vitro fertilization can be considered children under state law. The decision prompted clinics across the state to halt fertility treatments and caused a nationwide uproar over reproductive health rights. With Republicans feeling the heat, Alabama lawmakers scrambled to pass a law to shield IVF providers from prosecution and civil lawsuits “for the damage to or death of an embryo” during treatment.

But when it comes to courts, Arizona lawmakers are doubling down: state Supreme Court justices are appointed by the governor but generally face voters every six years in retention elections. That could soon change. A constitutional amendment referred by the Arizona Legislature that could appear on the November ballot would eliminate those regular elections—triggering them only under limited circumstances—and allow the justices to serve as long as they exhibit “good behavior.” Effectively it would grant justices lifetime appointments until age 70, when they must retire.

Even with the backlash against the Arizona court’s abortion decision, Keith said, “I suspect there aren’t Republicans in the state right now who are lamenting all these changes to entrench a conservative majority on the Supreme Court.”

Meanwhile, abortion rights groups are trying to get a voter-led state constitutional amendment on the ballot that would protect abortion access until fetal viability and allow abortions afterward to protect the life or health of the pregnant person.

State court decisions are causing headaches even at the very top of the Republican ticket. In an announcement in which he declined to endorse a national abortion ban, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump on April 8 said he was “proudly the person responsible” for ending Roe v. Wade, which recognized a federal constitutional right to abortion before being overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2022, and said the issue should be left to states. “The states will determine by vote or legislation, or perhaps both, and whatever they decide must be the law of the land,” he said. But just two days later he sought to distance himself from the Arizona decision. Trump also praised the Alabama Legislature for enacting the law aiming to preserve access to fertility treatments. “The Republican Party should always be on the side of the miracle of life,” he said.

Recent court decisions on reproductive health issues in Alabama, Arizona, and Florida will hardly be the last. The Iowa Supreme Court, which underwent a conservative overhaul in recent years, on April 11, heard arguments on the state’s near-total abortion ban. Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds signed it into law in 2023 but it has been blocked in court.

In Florida, there was disappointment all around after dueling state Supreme Court decisions this month that simultaneously paved the way for a near-total abortion ban and also allowed a ballot measure that would enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution to proceed.

The Florida high court’s decisions were “simply unacceptable when five of the current seven sitting justices on the court were appointed by Republican Governor Ron DeSantis,” Andrew Shirvell, executive director of the anti-abortion group Florida Voice for the Unborn, said in a statement. “Clearly, grassroots pro-life advocates have been misled by elements within the ‘pro-life, pro-family establishment’ because Florida’s highest court has now revealed itself to be a paper tiger when it comes to standing-up to the murderous abortion industry.”

Tension between state judicial systems and conservative legislators seems destined to continue, given judges’ growing power over reproductive health access, Piatt said, with people on both sides of the political aisle asking: “Is this a court that is potentially going to give me politically what I’m looking for?”

Reprinted with permission from Daily Kos.

Chamath Palihapitiya

The Tech Billionaires Who Are Backing Kennedy's Anti-Science Crusade

Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the latest scion of the Kennedy clan to seek the presidency, has a set of unusual fans: some of the most influential tech executives and investors in America. Kennedy’s strong anti-vaccine views are, for this group, a sideshow.

“Tearing down all these institutions of power. It gives me glee,” said one of his boosters in tech, Chamath Palihapitiya, a garrulous former Facebook executive, nearly two hours into a May episode of the popular “All-In” podcast he co-hosts with other tech luminaries. The person who might help with the demolition was the show’s guest, Kennedy himself.

“Me too,” responded David Sacks, Palihapitiya’s co-host on the podcast, an early investor in Facebook and Uber. Sacks and Palihapitiya said they would host a fundraiser for Kennedy, which, according to the Puck news outlet, was set for June 15.

Kennedy’s newfound friends in Silicon Valley were mostly loud supporters of vaccines early in the pandemic, but they have proven more than willing to let him expound on his anti-vaccine views and conspiracy theories as he promotes his presidential bid. During a two-hour forum on Twitter, hosted by company owner Elon Musk and Sacks, Kennedy raised a range of themes, but returned to the subject he’s become famous for in recent years: his skepticism about vaccines and the pharmaceutical companies that sell them.

Indeed, on the June 5 appearance, he praised Musk for ending “censorship” on his corner of social media. A promoter of conspiracy theories, Kennedy said various forces are keeping him from discussing his safety concerns over vaccines, like Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff (as part of the intelligence apparatus), Big Pharma, and Roger Ailes (who has been dead for six years).

Kennedy argued an influx of direct-to-consumer advertising from pharmaceutical concerns keep media outlets, like Fox News, from featuring his theories about vaccine safety. Fox didn’t respond to a request for comment.

He then said he supported reversing policies that allow direct-to-consumer ads in media. (Kennedy earlier dubbed himself a “free-speech absolutist” and, later, in a discussion about nuclear power, a “free-market absolutist” and even later a “constitutional absolutist.” Legal scholars doubt the courts, on First Amendment grounds, would be receptive to a ban of direct-to-consumer ads.)

Support for Kennedy in the venture capital and tech communities, which have a big financial stake in the advancement of science and generally reject irrational conspiracy theories, is likely limited. Multiple venture capitalists and technologists contacted by KFF Health News expressed puzzlement over what’s driving the embrace from Musk and others.

“I think he is a lower-intellect, Democratic version of Donald Trump, so he attracts libertarian-leaning, anti-‘woke,’ socially liberal folks as a protest vote,” said Robert Nelsen, a biotech investor with Arch Venture Partners. “I think he is a dangerous conspiracy theorist, who has contributed to many deaths with his anti-vaccine lies.”

But the ones with the megaphones are letting Kennedy talk. Jason Calacanis, another co-host of “All-In” and a pal of Musk’s, said late in the podcast he was pleased the conversation didn’t lead with “sensational” topics — like vaccines. Still, during the podcast, Kennedy was given nearly five uninterrupted minutes to describe his views on shots — a long list of alleged safety problems, ranging from allergies, autism, to autoimmune problems, many of which have been discredited by reputable scientists.

David Friedberg, another Silicon Valley executive and guest on the show, suggested there wasn’t “direct evidence” for those problems. “I don’t think it’s solely the vaccines,” Kennedy conceded. After an interlude touching on the role of chemicals, he was back to injuries caused by diphtheria shots.

While Friedberg, a former Google executive and founder of an agriculture startup sold to Monsanto for a reported $1.1 billion, pushed back against Kennedy, he did so deep into the podcast, after the candidate had left. Kennedy’s views — on nuclear power and vaccines — manifest “as conspiracy theories,” he said. “It doesn’t resonate with me,” he continued, as he “likes to have empirical truth be demonstrated.”

The muted pushback is a bit of a reversal. Early in the rollout of covid-19 vaccines, many tech luminaries had been among the most loudly pro-shot individuals. The “All-In” crew was no exception. Sacks once tweeted, “We’ve got to raise the bar for what we expect from government”; Palihapitiya begged administrators to “stop virtue signaling” with vaccination criteria and simply mass-vaccinate instead.

That was then. Sacks recently retweeted a video of Bill Gates questioning the effectiveness of current covid vaccines and defended Kennedy from charges of being anti-vaccination.

Musk himself has sometimes suggested he has qualms with vaccines, tweeting in January, without evidence, that “I’m pro vaccines in general, but there’s a point where the cure/vaccine is potentially worse, if administered to the whole population, than the disease.”

Musk isn’t the only top tech executive to signal interest in Kennedy’s candidacy. Block CEO and Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey has tweeted Kennedy “can and will” win the presidency.

In some ways, the Valley’s interest in Kennedy — vaccine skepticism and all — has deep roots. Tech culture grew out of Bay Area counterculture. It has historically embraced individualistic theories of health and wellness. While most have conventional views on health, techies have dabbled in “nootropics,” supplements that purportedly boost mental performance, plus fad diets, microdosing psychedelics, and even quests for immortality.

There’s a “deeply held anti-establishment ethos” among many tech leaders, said University of Washington historian Margaret O’Mara. There’s a “suspicion of authority, disdain for gatekeepers and traditionalists, dislike of bureaucracies of all kinds. This too has its roots in the counterculture era, and the 1960s antiwar movement, in particular.”

Reprinted with permission from Daily Kos.

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