The Supreme Court’s One-Two Punch Against Women

abortion pill supreme court lisa montgomery death penalty women
Abortion activists outside the Supreme Court in 2012. (Blink O’fanaye / Flickr)

With two swift actions last week, the Supreme Court proved it is alarmingly disinterested in protecting women’s lives. 

The first action by the Court involved mifepristone, a drug used for medication abortion and miscarriage care. The Supreme Court reinstated a dangerous policy that patients travel to a health center during the pandemic just to pick up a pill and sign a form—putting thousands of patients at risk of contracting a deadly virus. 

Medication abortion is safe, effective, and has been FDA-approved for 20 years—all facts the Supreme Court ignored. Instead of protecting patients’ lives while ensuring access to abortion care, the Supreme Court chose to throw its weight behind the Trump administration, show its contempt for patients who need abortion care, and put their lives at risk in the process. And it did so at a time when the nation is facing the deadliest phase of the pandemic yet.

For patients who are needlessly exposed to COVID-19 because of the travel and childcare necessitated by this requirement, the court’s action could be deadly. For Lisa Montgomery, it already has been. Last week, Montgomery became the first woman to be executed by the federal government in nearly 70 years. 

When the Trump administration chose to restart federal executions after a 17-year hiatus, the Justice Department hand-selected who would be the first to die. Montgomery, who was sentenced to death for the killing of Bobbie Jo Stinnett, would have been an unlikely candidate for such a list under a different administration. For one thing, the federal government had not executed a woman since Ethel Rosenberg in 1953. 

For another, Montgomery had suffered unthinkable sexual violence and torture. As a young girl, her stepfather constructed a rape chamber adjoining the family home specifically to abuse and terrorize her. Her mother trafficked her to countless men to pay the bills and later married her to a stepbrother, who continued the pattern of raping, abusing, and beating her. She was then just 18 years old.


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These years of abuse left her with documented mental illness so severe that she regularly dissociates and did not understand why she was being executed at the time she was killed—a clear red line in terms of whether it was constitutional for the government to kill her. 

abortion pill supreme court lisa montgomery death penalty women
Lisa Montgomery at age 13, By then, her stepfather had been molesting her for approximately two years. His rapes would now begin. (Photo courtesy of attorneys for Lisa Montgomery)

Montgomery’s lawyers filed a clemency petition with Trump, asking him to take into account these circumstances and convert her death sentence into life without parole, but he never even bothered to respond. Including Montgomery on the federal government’s must-execute list was a neon sign from Trump that no one, not even a victim of sexual torture, would be spared.

President-Elect Biden opposes the death penalty and is expected to halt federal executions. But after Trump lost the election, his administration forged angrily ahead with its execution plans—despite a pandemic and the fact that federal judges had concluded that Montgomery’s execution should be paused while the courts considered multiple legal challenges.

The Supreme Court could have left that schedule in place. Instead, it removed the final safeguards between a disgraced president and a woman’s life. 

In both cases, it was sadly unsurprising that the Trump administration acted with blatant disregard for women’s lives. This is, after all, the same administration whose leader boasted that he liked to “Grab ‘em by the pussy,” claimed that lying about committing rape was part of the president’s job description, and rolled back schools’ obligations to respond to sexual harassment and assault. The brutality of this executive branch has become almost banal. But by needlessly greenlighting Trump’s bloodthirst just days before the incoming administration might have changed course, the Supreme Court sent its own cruel message about its disregard for women.

As it often has, the majority of the Court did not even bother to explain its decisions. But to women, its silence spoke volumes.

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About

Ria Tabacco Mar is the director of the ACLU Women's Rights Project.