WASHINGTON — When Patty Murray got to the Senate in 1993, one of a then-unprecedented seven women in the 100-member body, she made access to abortion a top legislative priority.
By then, the right to terminate a pregnancy had been protected for 20 years by the Supreme Court's 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade, but Murray knew that decision could be reversed by a more conservative court, saying in a 1992 debate she wanted to codify abortion rights in federal law. Aside from passing such a law, she said, the selection of the next Supreme Court justice would be "the most important decision" senators could make to secure abortion access.
Three decades later, the decision Murray had feared came to pass when the court overturned Roe on June 24, leaving abortion laws up to the states, about half of which are expected to restrict the procedure or ban it outright.
"We all kind of knew what was going to happen, but when the ruling came down, I was so shocked, saddened and really angered by what our country — for the first time in 50 years — is saying to women," Murray said in an interview. "And that is that you no longer have control over your own choices when it comes to health care."
The court's ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, Murray said, "sets us back generations."
"For the first time in my life, my daughter and my granddaughters will have less rights than I do," she said. "It's a huge setback to us, and I'm going to do everything I can to make sure we codify Roe in law, so that women have equal protections across this country."
Passing a federal law that guarantees abortion rights, however, would require Democrats to retain their House majority and expand their control of the Senate, where both parties hold 50 seats and Vice President Kamala Harris's tiebreaking vote gives Democrats the narrowest of majorities.
That outcome seems unlikely, with Republicans widely expected to make gains in November's election, but Murray and other Democrats hope the Supreme Court's abortion ruling will inspire voters to support them despite President Joe Biden's low approval ratings. Democrats could nix the Senate filibuster that currently requires a 60-vote majority to pass most legislation, but some of their members oppose doing away with a rule that has historically forced bipartisan consensus.
Polls indicate U.S. voters have complicated feelings about abortion, with most Americans saying they want the procedure to be legal with some restrictions. Congress doesn't reflect that nuance, with most Democratic lawmakers supporting a bill to prohibit any restrictions on abortion while most Republicans want to ban it in virtually all cases.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Spokane Republican, called the Supreme Court's decision "one of the most momentous days in American history for the dignity and sanctity of every human life.
"This is just the beginning of a new era to define the human rights issue of our generation and to provide care, hope, and support for moms and their children at every stage of their lives," she said in a statement.
Murray said she has no qualms with eliminating the Senate filibuster to codify abortion rights, in part because she believes Republicans would do the same thing to ban the procedure if they had the chance. While Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky downplayed that possibility on Monday, he scrapped the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees in 2017 after blocking President Barack Obama's nominee the year before, moves that helped three of President Donald Trump's nominees get confirmed to the high court in just four years.
"We've got to fight back," Murray said. "No one should be dictated to by someone else's faith or belief, and Roe being stripped away means that we now live in a country where someone else's faith or belief dictates your ability to make your own decisions. And to me, that's frightening."
Justice Clarence Thomas, confirmed to the high court a year before Murray was elected to the Senate, was the first of a series of judges nominated by Republican presidents who have formed a conservative supermajority on the court that all but assured abortion rights would be eroded. Chief Justice John Roberts, a relative moderate appointed by President George W. Bush, unsuccessfully sought to steer the majority toward a less sweeping ruling that would have left some federal abortion protections in tact.
"What I have seen over time is Republicans adamantly focused on chipping away at women's rights," Murray said. "They got a big win, in their view, but I do not think this is the end of their fight."
In an interview with Breitbart after the ruling was announced, former Vice President Mike Pence, a likely presidential candidate in 2024, said he supports banning abortion nationwide.
"Now that Roe v. Wade has been consigned to the ash heap of history," Pence said, "a new arena in the cause of life has emerged, and it is incumbent on all who cherish the sanctity of life to resolve that we will take the defense of the unborn and the support for women in crisis pregnancy centers to every state in America."
Without federal rules requiring abortion access, a patchwork of state laws will mean women in GOP-controlled states will have to travel to states like Washington to terminate a pregnancy. Thirteen states, including Idaho, have "trigger laws" banning abortion in most or all cases that will take effect now that Roe has been overturned.
Paul Dillon, vice president of public affairs at Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and North Idaho, said in a virtual event with Murray on Wednesday that 43% of patients seeking abortions at their Spokane Valley clinic and 62% at their Pullman clinic are from Idaho, a 20% increase from a year earlier.
"We believe all people — no matter where they live — should have the right to control their own body, life and future," Dillon said. "It is unjust and unacceptable that more than half of the states in the United States, including our neighbors in Idaho, are moving to rob patients of that right, forced to overcome unjust barriers simply to access the abortion care they need and deserve."
In a virtual meeting on Friday with Democratic governors, including Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington, Biden called the Supreme Court's ruling "a terrible, extreme decision" and pledged to use the limited powers of the executive branch to protect the ability to travel across state lines to obtain an abortion or to receive abortion pills in the mail.
More than half of abortions in the United States are done via medication, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that supports abortion rights.
Murray said she has asked the president to consider all options to preserve abortion access in states that restrict the procedure, but she threw cold water on a proposal floated by other Democrats — including Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez of New York — to use federal land in red states like Idaho to provide abortions.
"I've asked the president to look at all their options, and they have expressed concern about that," Murray said. "And we have to be very careful not to put any woman or provider in danger or at risk of prosecution, and so I think we have to be very careful about that."
In the meantime, Murray said, she's working in Congress to secure more funding for abortion providers, especially those in places like Eastern Washington that are likely to see the biggest influx in patients from other states.
Murray said she is concerned the court's conservative supermajority could roll back other rights Americans now take for granted. In a concurring opinion that no other justice chose to join, Thomas signaled he believes the court should revisit other decisions that guaranteed rights not explicitly enshrined in the Constitution, including same-sex marriage and access to contraception.
"I grew up in a country where we have expanded rights, constantly giving women the right to vote, allowing people to make their own health care decisions, expanding rights to allow LGBTQ couples to be married, allowing people voting rights," she said. "And we are seeing that taken away in a first step here by the court.
"There's only one way to change that, and that's through our individual voices and votes across this nation. I hope Americans stand up, realize what's at stake. Their democracy is at stake, and we need to fight for it."