The court ruled 6-3 to end the constitutional right to an abortion, and activists predict that abortion rights are the first in a long line of civil rights to face the chopping block.
The Supreme Court of the United States has overturned the landmark Roe v Wade ruling (1973), which established that the constitution protects the right to abortion.
The decision to overturn Roe v Wade was made in the case of Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization (2022), which challenged Mississippi’s law banning abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy. The court ruled in favour of the state, declaring that the constitution makes no reference to abortion as a right and contains no implicit provisions that protect such a right either.
The ruling may have come as a surprise had it not been for a draft court opinion written by justice Samuel Alito, which was leaked to Politico in early May. The 98-page-document is blistering in its condemnation of Roe, stating that the ruling was “exceptionally weak” and will have “damaging consequences”. The leak sparked a wave of protest across the country and worldwide, with many outraged that the court was seeking to take such steps.
In the end, the court continued ruling in favour of Mississippi, bringing an end to almost 50 years of abortion rights. Five judges – Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney-Barrett – supported the ruling, with Chief Justice John Roberts stating that he supported the Mississippi ban but would not have gone further. The three dissenting liberal judges – Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan – wrote:
“Today’s decision strips women of agency over what even the majority agrees is a contested and contestable moral issue. It forces her to carry out the State’s will, whatever the circumstances and the harm it will wreak on her and her family. In the Fourteenth Amendment’s terms, it takes away her liberty… With sorrow – for this Court, but more, for the many millions of American women who have today lost a fundamental constitutional protection – we dissent.”
With at least 26 states ready to ban abortion outright following the decision, there are a set of ‘trigger’ laws, where legislation is now ready to come into effect, prepared to sweep the country. States such as Idaho, Tennessee, Texas, and Alabama are just some areas where activists believe abortion will soon become outlawed, with nationwide bans predicted to follow should Republican lawmakers be successful in winning congressional majorities in the next midterms.
The effects of this ruling on reproductive health are staggering. The World Health Organisation estimates that 73 million abortions occur worldwide every year, and research has found that abortion rates decrease in countries where the procedure is legal. Before Roe, illegal abortions made up ⅙ of all reported pregnancy-related deaths in the U.S., with the actual number believed to be much higher. Safe, legal abortions led to fewer maternal deaths, and access to safe abortions and better reproductive health has meant the abortion rate in the country has been steadily declining since the 1990s. With the ruling and potential further laws, an estimated 1 in 3 people of reproductive age could lose their ability to access abortion in their state.
Now, activists and reproductive healthcare officials fear we could see a backslide into unsafe, illegal abortions, especially in the states set to enact trigger laws. These would disproportionately hurt vulnerable communities, such as less wealthy, Latino, Indigenous and Black communities. Meanwhile, those with the facilities and resources to travel across state lines for abortion may face laws that prosecute individuals travelling across state lines seeking to terminate their pregnancy.
The decision hurts even more considering the court’s ruling the previous day on concealed carry, which challenged New York’s concealed carry laws and expanded gun rights. Many on Twitter have even remarked that guns now have more rights in America than people do.
Perhaps most worrying is the remarks made about the ruling by conservative justice Clarence Thomas that the court has a ‘duty’ to reconsider ruling such as Griswold, Lawrence and Obergefell, landmark rulings on contraception, same-sex relationships, and same-sex marriage, respectively. The conservative bench of the court has long sought to target such precedents, though many had considered them untouchable. This was perhaps one of our biggest mistakes when it came to Roe v Wade. Almost half a century of abortion rights meant politicians became comfortable, with former president Barack Obama stating that codifying the ruling on a federal level was not a priority. President Joe Biden had promised to complete this process but was slow to act, and the Supreme Court was able to move first.
As the fight for abortion rights continues in courtrooms, legislative chambers and streets across America, the Supreme Court’s ruling has sent a dire warning: nothing is off the table.