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Why Federal Courts Matter for Sexual Health and Reproductive Rights

The U.S. president has the power to nominate federal judges, and the Senate has the power to confirm them.

The judges themselves?

They have the power to control whether or not you have access to abortion. 

See the issues that federal judges can control.


The Constitution should protect our freedom to make decisions about our own bodies. But abortion and other fundamental reproductive rights have been under the most intense attacks by state lawmakers since 1973, when abortion became legal in the United States.

Lawmakers have successfully restricted or banned access to abortion because many federal judges have allowed the harmful laws they’ve passed to stand. And many of these federal judges were nominated by the last administration and have records hostile to reproductive rights.

If you care about sexual health and reproductive rights, it’s important to pay attention to what’s happening with our nation’s courts, including the judicial nomination process. Here’s what you need to know.

Judicial Nominations: How Federal Judges Are Chosen

How do federal judges get their jobs? First, the president of the United States nominates them. Learn what happens next in the process, and where you can have an impact.

Learn How

Politicians’ Influence on the Federal Courts

Once the president nominates judges, the U.S. Senate confirms them. But past presidents and senators have used their power to remake the federal courts with judges who have records hostile to abortion, birth control, LGBTQ+ rights, and immigrant rights. It’s all part of a coordinated strategy to take away our rights.

Some senators have used their power to manipulate the judicial nomination process to serve their own political agenda.

During the Obama administration, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and his supporters used unprecedented methods to obstruct judicial confirmations and changed the system that was in place for decades. For President Barack Obama's judicial nominees, Sen. McConnell ground Senate confirmation votes to a halt — leaving more than 100 seats empty for the next president to fill. When President Trump took office, the Senate started working overtime to confirm his picks. 

Federal Courts 101

Although the U.S. Supreme Court gets a lot of attention, U.S. district and appeals courts often have the final word on defining the law.

More on the Federal Court System

Don’t Underestimate Senators’ Influence on the Confirmation Process of a President’s Nominees

While one of the most important powers of the president is nominating federal judges, U.S. senators have the power to confirm or reject nominees — impacting our rights for generations.

The votes of just a few senators can make that difference.

The courts are meant to protect people from unconstitutional laws.

But under the last administration, the courts changed dramatically:

With Sen. McConnell’s help, Trump added three justices to the Supreme Court and filled 234 lifetime judicial seats in the lower federal courts.

That's more federal judges in a four-year term than any president since President Jimmy Carter.

Nearly one in three judges on the U.S. Courts of Appeals is now a President Trump pick. 

Trump’s judicial appointments were disproportionately white and male, many with records of clear hostility toward reproductive health and rights. 

These judges are now making decisions that erode our access to sexual and reproductive health care.

What's Happening In the...

State Legislatures and Lower Federal Courts:

In addition to the makeup of the courts dramatically shifting, states have enacted more abortion restrictions. In the last few years, lawmakers set records for the severity of state-level bans on abortion. In 2021 alone, states introduced 663 abortion restrictions and enacted 108 of these laws — a terrifying, all-time record in any single year since Roe v. Wade guaranteed our constitutional right to abortion.

Judges who are hostile to reproductive health and rights are now ruling on many of the cases involving those cruel abortion laws. They are deciding whether or not we have the ability to control our own bodies. Their rulings have devastating consequences for people who are disproportionately affected by abortion restrictions due to systemic barriers and discrimination: women of color, people with low incomes, people in rural areas, and immigrants.

Supreme Court:

Since the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision nearly 50 years ago, the U.S. Constitution has protected our right to abortion nationwide.

But Roe v. Wade is at greater risk than it has ever been before: The Supreme Court will soon decide Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a case about a Mississippi law that bans abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy; and the court has allowed Texas's unconstitutional six-week abortion ban to stay in effect — leaving millions of Texans effectively without the abortion rights guaranteed by Roe v. Wade.

Most legal observers expect the Supreme Court to overturn or dismantle Roe v. Wade by the summer of 2022.

State abortion restrictions and bans are accelerating at an alarming rate, and access to abortion are hanging on by a thread in many states across the country. For too many people, abortion is already out of reach.

Black and Brown communities, which deal with a legacy of systemic racism and discriminatory health care policies, are disproportionately affected by these laws. 

What little access to abortion is left for people living in many states across the country could end completely if
Roe v. Wade is overturned.

What Now? 

Today, 80% of people in America want abortion to remain legal. It’s clear: We need judges who recognize that the Constitution protects our most fundamental rights and freedoms.

Planned Parenthood will continue to fight for the confirmation of nominees who have a record that supports reproductive health and rights. We need your help: With dozens of vacancies in the federal courts, we’re asking you to get loud.

Planned Parenthood has defended your rights for over 100 years.

All  17 million+ supporters are not backing down.

Now, Planned Parenthood Action Fund urges you to pay attention to what Senate candidates say during the midterm elections in November, and vote for senators who promise to uphold the values of equity and justice.