Amy Coney Barrett's past calls into question her pledges of impartiality

Stephanie Kirchgaessner in Washington
·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Reuters</span>
Photograph: Reuters

As Mitch McConnell, the top Republican leader in the Senate, stood before his party this weekend on the verge of confirming Amy Coney Barrett to a lifetime seat on the supreme court, he lamented that much of what Republicans had achieved would likely be unravelled after the next election.

But – in what he heralded as a major victory – there was very little Democrats would be able to do about Barrett “for a long time to come” or the insurmountable majority conservatives have secured on the nation’s highest court.

In Senate confirmation hearings – both this month and in 2017, before she became an appellate court judge – Barrett portrayed herself as a judge who would respect judicial precedent and whose personal religious beliefs as a devout Catholic would not colour judicial rulings.

What is the Louisiana law?

The case from Louisiana is called June Medical Services v Russo. It centers around a state law which requires doctors who perform abortions to have “admitting privileges” at a local hospital. Admitting privileges are usually granted to a hospital’s staff doctors, and allow them to admit a patient for treatment.

Abortion rights advocates argue this is an attempt to place an insurmountable barrier in the way of abortion clinics seeking to lawfully operate, and that such requirements will ultimately shut them down. Many hospitals are wary of links to abortion doctors. In other cases, abortion clinics may be located too far from hospitals to comply with the law.

The supreme court heard a nearly identical case from Texas in 2016, called Whole Woman’s Health v Hellerstedt. The court found that laws requiring admitting privileges do not confer medical benefits to women, and that they place a “substantial obstacle” for women who seek abortions.

Could the court overturn Roe v Wade?

Yes, although it is unlikely to do so outright. However, even if abortion remains legal, such requirements as called for in the Louisiana law could lead to the closure of many clinics in states where such laws exist. Louisiana, for example, could be left with just one clinic.

The court’s choice to hear this case at all is already incredibly rare. The supreme court hardly ever hears cases similar to recent rulings, and this Louisiana law is almost identical to a law overturned just three years ago.

What’s the significance of the supreme court under Trump?

President Trump appointed two socially conservative jurists to the court: Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. Importantly, Kavanaugh replaced a justice who was known as a “swing vote”, and supportive of Roe v Wade. This case is the first test of the court on abortion with its new, more conservative make-up. This means anti-abortion groups could get a more sympathetic hearing.

Are abortion rights unpopular in America?

No. Polls consistently show a majority of Americans support the right to an abortion.

So who is pushing this?

The anti-abortion movement in America is organized, motivated and well funded. It has also been emboldened by the rhetoric of Donald Trump, who sees white evangelical Christians as a core part of his base.

The anti-abortion movement often passes multiple, similar laws that push constitutional boundaries, in an effort to provoke favorable decisions from federal courts.

If Roe v Wade is overturned as many as 22 states stand ready to ban abortion.

However, investigations by the Guardian have revealed a deeply conservative jurist who has been committed – personally and professionally – to reversing abortion rights.

A newspaper advertisement signed by Barrett in 2006, which she failed to disclose to the Senate, called for the reversal of Roe v Wade, the landmark ruling giving women the right to an abortion, and called its legacy “barbaric”.

The advert Barrett signed, which was published by an extreme anti-abortion group called St Joseph County Right to Life, also called for the protection of all life from “fertilisation to natural death”. That statement suggests Barrett is among a relatively narrow subset of anti-choice activists who believe that procedures involved in in vitro fertilisation, which can include the discarding of unused fertilised eggs produced outside the body, are tantamount to having an abortion and ought to be banned.

The anti-choice group’s executive director, Jacqueline Appleman, told the Guardian she supported the criminalisation of doctors who perform abortion, but “at this point” not the women who terminate their pregnancies.

Related: Trump and Barrett's threat to abortion and LGBTQ rights is simply un-American | Robert Reich

An examination of Barrett’s opposition to abortion also found that she was a member of a “right to life” group as a university professor that promoted a local crisis pregnancy centre in South Bend called the Women’s Care Center. Such clinics appear at first glance to offer women abortion options on their websites, but most – including South Bend’s – are linked to local church groups and actively seek to dissuade women from terminating their pregnancies. Critics say most do so by providing false information about abortion to vulnerable women who are seeking help.

While Democrats steered clear of probing Barrett on her personal life and beliefs, the Guardian’s examination of the Louisiana native’s history revealed that she has maintained a close affiliation to a controversial Christian faith group, the People of Praise, since she became an adult.

Barrett has never disclosed her membership in the South Bend-based organisation, which calls on adherents to speak in tongues and to engage in prophecy. Former members of the group who were interviewed described a controlling and sometimes cult-like faith group that encourages communal living and calls for women to submit to their husbands, who are designated heads of the household.

Public records revealed that Barrett – who was once a “handmaid”, or female leader – lived in the home of the group’s co-founder as a law student at Notre Dame before she moved to Washington, where she also lived with a People of Praise family. Some former members who are critical of the group – including four who shared stories with the Guardian about sexual abuse they suffered as children at the hands of male members – said too little was understood about the control the group had over members’ everyday lives and decisions. People of Praise recently hired a law firm with close ties to the White House to investigate the claims. The group said it took claims of wrongdoing seriously.

People of Praise is also staunchly opposed to same-sex marriage and expels members who admit to having gay sex. A school affiliated with the group, where Barrett served as a trustee, in effect barred the children of gay parents from attending, according to reporting by the Associated Press.