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Kirsten Gillibrand plans to stay front and center in the abortion fight

Presidential candidate Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., speaks during

Presidential candidate Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., speaks during a news conference at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta on May 16, 2019 to discuss abortion bans in Georgia and across the country. Credit: AP/Bob Andres

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., has struggled with fundraising and in the polls. With abortion taking center stage in the national debate, however, Gillibrand has the opportunity to raise her profile.

Even before Sen. Elizabeth Warren's plan landed Friday, Gillibrand put out her plan last Thursday for dealing with the most serious effort to dismantle Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which has precluded bans and serious restrictions on abortion, at least up to viability. Gillibrand's plan would protect access to abortion. ("I would end harmful policies like the Hyde Amendment, which disproportionately restricts access to abortion for low-income women and women of color. And I would repeal President Trump's gag rule, because no politician should come between doctors and their patients.") She would also codify Roe v. Wade in law, take measures to protect clinics from violence, and support and "only nominate judges - including Supreme Court justices - who will commit to upholding Roe v. Wade as settled law and protect women's reproductive rights."

Gillibrand in a brief phone interview tells me, "The Hyde Amendment is something I've been against for forever." What's new is her pledge to codify Roe in a federal statute and her pledge to nominate only judges who'll respect Roe as settled law.

Presidents have been loath to ask judges how they'd rule. To that objection, Gillibrand responds: "President Trump and Mitch McConnell have unilaterally changed the rules. McConnell literally stole a seat on the Supreme Court." Trump, she points out, presented a list of possible justices all pre-vetted by conservative groups that want to restrict or ban abortion. In a "new landscape," her attitude is that all bets are off. (Judges, however, may still feel ethically obliged not to answer.) She emphatically states that the Democratic Party shouldn't tolerate those who don't respect women's rights, which are "basic human rights."

She rejects the idea that the abortion rights movement was surprised by the spate of extreme legislation. The abortion rights movement has been working consistently and conscientiously to fight the right-wing agenda, she says. Abortion rights forces could see that the right took a "generational approach." She says, "They (antiabortion activists) have been building for decades." The abortion rights movement, now overwhelmed with support and donations, is ready to have the brawl that's been coming for 45 years.

She plans to stay front and center in the fight to beat back the abortion legislation. "My job is to lift up voices," she says. Whether she continues physically joining protesters at state-level events as she did in Georgia isn't clear. In any case, she vows, "I will fight alongside them." She adds, "This why I fought so hard against (Justice Brett) Kavanaugh and against (Justice Neil) Gorsuch."

Gillibrand's passion on this issue is obvious. However, she shares a problem that afflicts the 21 other challengers who face former Vice President Joe Biden: How does she distinguish herself? All the candidates have abortion rights bona fides; Warren's plan resembles Gillibrand's. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., was among the first to denounce the state bans. Even on an issue central to her political identity, it's not clear that Gillibrand can differentiate herself from the other candidates.

Gillibrand has not yet qualified for the debates. It's imperative that she make it to the stage where she has a chance to be heard. Without a phenomenal debate performance she will find it nearly impossible to improve her fundraising, which in turn would make it that much harder to qualify for future debates. In a real sense, it is now or never for the abortion rights movement - and for Gillibrand's presidential hopes.

Jennifer Rubin wrote this for The Washington Post.