Liberal groups are working to stop Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation – which could threaten to unravel abortion rights

Protesters opposed to the nomination of supreme court pick Brett Kavanaugh on Capitol Hill on 1 August. Photograph: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Two thousand Planned Parenthood organizers and volunteers, mostly female and young, gathered recently in Detroit to imagine what they see as a kinder, more peaceful America.

But eighteen months and counting into the presidency of Donald Trump and with the threat of a conservative supreme court that could unravel abortion rights in the US, their mission was nothing short of political trench warfare.

“Are women going to be equal members of this society or not? Are they going to have equal rights or not?” said Deirdre Schifeling, the executive director of Planned Parenthood Action Fund said. “That is what is on the line.”

As part of that fight, the 100-year-old women’s health organization convened Power of Pink, the “biggest, baddest, raddest grassroots training ever”. Planned Parenthood, along with a coalition of other liberal groups, are working to mobilize opposition to Brett Kavanaugh, whose supreme court nomination was been cheered by social conservatives as a chance to finally overturn Roe v Wade, the 1973 landmark supreme court decision that established a constitutional right to abortion.

The stakes are particularly high as Kavanaugh would replace moderate Justice Anthony Kennedy, a sometime-swing vote who embraced more liberal views on abortion.

The volunteers at the Power of Pink training are the ground troops in an uphill, multi-million dollar battle to stop Kavanaugh from being confirmed to the supreme court.

“I have my kevlar on. I have my boots on, my pink camouflage. I’m ready to fight,” said Peshka Calloway, an Army veteran from Parkersburg, West Virginia.

Calloway has relied on Planned Parenthood for care and support after being sexually assaulted by a fellow soldier. Now she’s doing everything she can to protect the organization and the reproductive health services it provides.

“I may even run for office,” she exclaimed, having just left a candidate training run by Emily’s List, which helps to elect pro-choice women. “A lot of people tell me I should.”

The three-day training was held at the Cobo Center, a sprawling structure in downtown Detroit with a glass atrium boasting views of Ontario, Canada. That just across the Detroit River, healthcare is free and the prime minister is an unapologetic feminist was not lost on attenders.

Brett Kavanaugh would replace moderate Justice Anthony Kennedy, a key sometime-swing vote who embraced more liberal views on abortion.
 Brett Kavanaugh would replace moderate Justice Anthony Kennedy, a key sometime-swing vote who embraced more liberal views on abortion. Photograph: Joshua Roberts/Reuters

Throughout the weekend, participants heard from Cecile Richards, who recently stepped down after serving more than a decade as president of Planned Parenthood, Debbie Stabenow, a US senator from Michigan, and Barack Obama, who applauded their activism in a pre-taped video. Then, in break-out sessions and panels, they strategized how to stop Kavanaugh’s confirmation.

In the Senate, Democrats alone do not have the votes to derail a supreme court confirmation. But if they hold their party together and persuade two Republican senators to their side it would be a death knell for Kavanaugh’s nomination.

The plan is to pressure red-state Democrats like senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia who are still undecided on Kavanaugh and moderate Republicans like Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, who have said they support abortion access. It is widely seen as a long shot, but that is not deterring them.

“We know from the fight over the Affordable Care Act that hearing from thousands of Alaskans across the state really impacted her decision,” Jessica Cler, an organizer with Planned Parenthood in Anchorage, said of Murkowski, who helped block a Republican bill that would have repealed the healthcare law. “We know it will be the same with Scotus, so folks are doing anything and everything they can to make sure that she’s hearing from us.”

Yet in interviews with the Washington Post, Murkowski and Collins said they felt the emotional pleas from constituents over the supreme court nominee have “less intensity” than the stories they heard during the healthcare debate. But the senators acknowledged that the personal appeals had affected them.

Already Planned Parenthood volunteers have made hundreds of calls to the senators’ offices and sent postcards and letters from women sharing their personal stories. They also published op-eds in the hometown newspapers of key senators.

Planned Parenthood and a coalition of advocacy groups have launched an offensive against Kavanaugh that will give volunteers the chance to put their training into practice. Supporters will participate in more than 100 actions across the country this week “to sound the alarm on how Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court would threaten people’s health and rights”.

The ‘Kavanaugh Singers’ perform in front of the supreme court promoting the confirmation of nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh on 8 August.
 The ‘Kavanaugh Singers’ perform in front of the supreme court promoting the confirmation of nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh on 8 August. Photograph: Brian Snyder/Reuters

Meanwhile, Susan B Anthony List, an anti-abortion political organization, launched a seven-state campaign to pressure vulnerable Democrats to confirm Kavanaugh as part of a broader effort to help galvanize opponents of abortion ahead of the 2018 midterms.

Behind the sharp political debateare deeply personal, and often painful, experiences, said Síona Cahill, an Irish pro-choice activist who helped mobilize voters to repeal Ireland’s near-total ban on abortion.

In one of the most warmly received speeches for volunteers in Detroit, shesaid the Irish campaign was successful because thousands of women broke their silence and shared their stories.

“We didn’t make it about those who disagreed with us,” she said. “We made it about the people that a ban on full reproductive rights affects: everyone.”

A majority of Americans have long believed that abortion should be legal and that share has only climbed since Kavanaugh was nominated. That gives abortion rights advocates hope that a public pressure campaign could sway votes in the Senate.

“It has been the singular goal of the anti-abortion right to get the courts packed with conservative justices who will overturn Roe,” said Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund. “They were gleeful until they realized that their glee collided with what the American people want.”

Planned Parenthood and coalition of pro-choice groups have demanded that lawmakers oppose Kavanaugh unless he commits to affirm the “right of all people to make personal decisions about their bodies,” including the right to use contraception and access abortion. He will almost certainly decline to answer questions about how he would rule from the bench during his confirmation hearing.

While Kavanaugh has not ruled directly on abortion, Laguens said his writings and speeches are evidence enough to justify their worst fears.

“It may not be the Handmaid’s Tale,” Laguens said. “But it won’t be pretty.”