Murkowski faces backlash after justices she supported appear poised to roll back abortion rights

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a key Republican supporter of abortion rights, faced a harsh backlash from progressive critics Tuesday after the leak of a U.S. Supreme Court draft opinion that would overturn abortion rights and is reportedly backed by two Trump-nominated justices she voted to confirm.

Murkowski, who’s facing a Trump-endorsed challenger for her Senate seat in Alaska this year, voted to confirm Amy Coney Barrett and Neil Gorsuch.

They’re among the four justices who voted with the drafter of the leaked opinion, Samuel Alito, in an initial meeting after oral arguments in December on a case that tests the validity of a Mississippi law banning abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, Politico reported Monday.

Murkowski, as she voted to confirm Barrett in 2020, said she did not believe the new justice would vote to overturn the foundational Roe v. Wade decision guaranteeing abortion rights. She said Tuesday that if the draft opinion is upheld, “it rocks my confidence in the court right now.”

“It was not the direction that I believed that the court would take, based on statements that have been made about Roe being settled and being precedent,” Murkowski, who also voted to confirm Alito in 2006, told the New York Times.

Abortion rights in Alaska would not be directly affected by a U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, as the Alaska Supreme Court has interpreted the state Constitution’s privacy clause to provide its own protections. And while Murkowski is up for re-election, experts argued that she faces limited political consequences because there’s no Democrat in the race for frustrated progressives to turn to.

[If Roe v. Wade is overturned, abortion access in Alaska would remain. Opponents see a constitutional convention as a pathway to end it.]


But activists in Alaska held rallies in Anchorage and Fairbanks on Tuesday. And Murkowski, along with another centrist Republican U.S. senator, Susan Collins of Maine, were facing a torrent of questions and criticism.

Democrats said that whatever the nominees might have said to the senators in private, there were plenty of indications that the justices appointed by former President Donald Trump were likely to vote to remove abortion rights.

“Murkowski voted for Amy Coney Barrett when Trump himself proclaimed that he was appointing justices specifically to overturn Roe,” U.S. Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez tweeted Tuesday. “She and Collins betrayed the nation’s reproductive rights when they were singularly capable of stopping the slide. They don’t get to play victim now.”

Alaska’s junior U.S. senator, Republican Dan Sullivan, is a longtime opponent of abortion rights; he’s said abortion should be illegal except in cases where a pregnancy stemmed from rape or incest — or if a mother’s life is at risk.

[Americans debate next moves as Biden blasts ‘radical’ Supreme Court draft opinion in abortion case]

In a prepared statement Tuesday, Sullivan spokesman Ben Dietderich did not directly address the substance of the draft opinion, and he declined to say whether the senator supports overturning Roe.

But Dietderich said Sullivan views the draft opinion’s leak as a “stunning betrayal that risks undermining the integrity and independence of the court” that should be “investigated and punished to the fullest extent possible.”

‘I just hope I live long enough to see it swing the other way’

Some 175 people gathered at a West Anchorage intersection late Tuesday for a rally that was hastily called by Planned Parenthood. Organizer Nora Morse said the most important message was making clear that abortion is still legal and that the draft opinion hadn’t changed that.

Participants, including several progressive candidates, were met by a near-nonstop stream of supportive honks and cheers.

“I cried most of the day — it’s very emotional,” said Alli Humphrey, 34. “The fact that we have people making laws for us that don’t understand how women’s bodies work and think that it’s OK to make those choices for us is really upsetting.”

She and Jenna Van Horn, 30, who was standing nearby, both said they were frustrated with Murkowski for her votes to confirm the justices who reportedly support repealing Roe.

“If she was a true ally, she wouldn’t have supported the nominees in the first place,” Van Horn said. “There’s been talk of, ‘Oh, this is not how they sounded when I talked to them right before.’ It’s like, well, what did you expect?”

Others said they were less inclined to target Murkowski.

Jeanne Ashcraft, 79, said she had declined a request for support from a Democratic state senator, Elvi Gray-Jackson, who launched a short-lived campaign for Murkowski’s seat before dropping out of the race in March, citing fundraising difficulty.

Ashcraft, a Democrat, said she feared that splitting the vote between Murkowski and Gray-Jackson risked creating an opening for Kelly Tshibaka, the Trump-endorsed Republican candidate in the race.

[Next frontier for the antiabortion movement: A nationwide ban]

“I can’t say I’m a Lisa Murkowski supporter,” Ashcraft said. But, she added, “I will vote for her. Because she’s better to have in there than a lot of other people.”


Ashcraft grew up in the pre-Roe era, and described how one of her college friends died from an infection she contracted after a “coat hanger abortion.”

“And, you know, that wasn’t unusual,” Ashcraft said. “She did it because her parents would have disowned her if they knew she was pregnant.”

Ashcraft said she felt like the country was moving in the right direction on reproductive rights until a few years ago.

“I just hope I live long enough to see it swing the other way,” she said.

Murkowski backed abortion-rights legislation

Murkowski had several brief run-ins with the Capitol Hill press corps Tuesday, but a spokeswoman said she was unavailable for an interview.

Tshibaka said in a prepared statement that if the draft opinion is upheld, “it will be a massive victory for millions of pre-born children who will be able to exercise their God-given rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Murkowski, a longtime supporter of abortion rights, introduced legislation in February with Collins to pass elements of the Roe decision, and another key abortion rights decision in the landmark Planned Parenthood v. Casey case, into law. She referenced the proposal Tuesday, saying “it made sense then and I think it makes, perhaps, more sense now.”

Supporters of abortion rights have reacted skeptically to that proposal, the Reproductive Choice Act. They note that Murkowski and Collins opposed a broader, Democratic-sponsored bill, the Women’s Health Protection Act, that would also invalidate state laws making it harder to access abortion — like those requiring waiting periods or parental notification for minors.


The draft opinion “underscores the importance of having a progressive voice” for Alaska in the U.S. Senate, said Lindsay Kavanaugh, the executive director of the Alaska Democratic Party.

Kavanaugh, in a phone interview Tuesday, said the party is in “active conversations” with potential candidates — who, she added, may be more motivated to run by a Supreme Court decision limiting access to abortion.

“We are not going to let Lisa Murkowski have this race,” she said.

But Kavanaugh also said she was frustrated that a previously declared Democratic candidate, Gray-Jackson, hadn’t drawn more support. Gray-Jackson withdrew from the race in March, after implying that she was struggling to raise money.

“I continually am disappointed that Democrats, we wait for this sort of a situation — which we all saw coming — to decide that it would be advantageous to have someone in the race,” she said.

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Nathaniel Herz

Anchorage-based independent journalist Nathaniel Herz has been a reporter in Alaska for nearly a decade, with stints at the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Public Media. Read his newsletter, Northern Journal, at natherz.substack.com