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Ruth Bader Ginsburg protected your abortion rights. Be afraid now that she's gone

Remembrances of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg are left

Remembrances of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg are left in front of the Supreme Court on Saturday. Credit: The Washington Post/Bill O'Leary

There were two things about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg I admired deeply. One was her relentless defense of abortion and reproductive rights, and the other was her excellent planking form in the gym. Balancing your body weight on your hands and feet for 30 to 60 seconds is a challenge at any age, let alone 80-plus years old.

But, then, fighting for abortion rights and holding a plank draw on some of the same skills — tenacity and a willingness to push through fatigue.

Reproductive rights have been constantly under attack in the nearly half-century since the court ruled women had a right to a legal and safe abortion in Roe v. Wade — and Ginsburg never gave up the fight.

In what would be her last vote on a reproductive rights case, she and Justice Sonia Sotomayor were the lonely holdouts from a Supreme Court ruling in July that would allow almost any company to get out of providing government mandated insurance for contraception if the employers had any kind of moral or religious objection to it.

Ginsburg wrote a meticulous and lengthy dissent, noting that tens of thousands of women would probably lose their contraception coverage. She also noted that exemptions provided by Congress were never intended to get companies out of government-required obligations based on any rarefied religious belief. She cited, among others, the court's 1986 ruling in Bowen v. Roy, in which "a Native American father asserted a sincere religious belief that his daughter's spirit would be harmed by the government's use of her Social Security number." No shock, the court ruled against the father. And, as Ginsburg noted, "a religious adherent may be entitled to religious accommodation with regard to her own conduct," but she is not entitled to force others to conform to her conduct.

In a landmark 2016 decision overturning an onerous Texas law (HB 2) that required abortion clinics to be outfitted like ambulatory surgical centers and staffed by doctors with hospital admitting privileges (ostensibly to protect women's health), Ginsburg's concurring opinion noted the extraordinary safety record of abortions and the lack of similar requirements for far more dangerous procedures. She called out the Texas law for the sham it was, writing, "it is beyond rational belief that HB 2 could genuinely protect the health of women, and certain that the law 'would simply make it more difficult for them to obtain abortions.'"

"Even in the last 13 years, Justice Ginsburg had to lay out again and again how pregnancy discrimination is sex discrimination," said Nancy Northup, chief executive of the Center for Reproductive Rights in a statement Friday night.

The power that Ginsburg wielded on the Supreme Court to make women's rights a legal reality — and the way she did it in a straightforward, steely way without bloviating — turned her into an 87-year-old age-defying cultural icon for women and girls, including little ones who donned her signature frilly white collar and robe and glasses as a Halloween costume. Probably some of that mystique came from the contrast between her diminutive stature as a woman and her stance as a judicial warrior. Her cult status was assured when she was crowned with the moniker, Notorious RBG, appropriated from the late Notorious B.I.G. — a massive, bass-voiced rapper who was in every way her physical opposite.

Between her work ethic on the court and her workouts in the gym, I truly, foolishly believed her to be nearly indestructible. Hearing earlier this summer of her trip to the hospital for a bile-duct stent cleaning and of the metastatic spread of one of the numerous cancers she had miraculously survived, I thought to myself, well ... she'll be fine, right? She'll certainly survive beyond the administration of a president she made little secret of disliking.

Her dying wish was not to be replaced until a new president is installed. There are so many aspects of that wish I hope come to pass for Ginsburg and the rest of us.

It's not just that her death leaves the court with only three stalwart supporters of abortion rights, it's that it leaves the possibility that her seat will be filled by an abortion opponent who will disregard the Supreme Court's three landmark rulings on abortion rights and search for ways to dismantle the bedrock ruling of Roe v. Wade, which would rob women of what the court has established as a constitutional right to a safe and legal abortion. I hope that day doesn't come to pass but if it does, it will be a dark day for civil rights.

Carla Hall is a Los Angeles Times editorial board member.

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