On Friday, June 24, the Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade, eliminating the constitutional right to a pregnant person's access to abortion after almost 50 years. The vote was 5-3-1, CNN reports. Justices Samuel Alito, Jr.; Clarence Thomas; Neil Gorsuch; Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett all voted in favor of overturning Roe. As a result of this decision, abortion access will be determined by the states, unless Congress decides to make abortion access a federal law.
President Joe Biden also delivered a speech on the issue, calling it a "solemn day for our country," noting that this is the first time in history that the Court has acted to revoke a Constitutional right.
"The health and life of women of our nation are now at risk," Biden said. "Make no mistake. This decision is the culmination of a deliberate effort over decades to upset the balance of our law." He pledged to do everything in his power to protect pregnant people's right to access abortion. He noted that, even if abortion is illegal in the state where you live, the right to travel to obtain an abortion remains in effect. At press time, almost half of the states already have or will pass laws that ban abortion while others have enacted measures to regulate it.
What did the Supreme Court decision rule?
In a joint dissenting opinion, Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan heavily criticized the majority, writing "With sorrow — for this Court, but more, for the many millions of American women who have today lost a fundamental constitutional protection — we dissent."
They further wrote, "Whatever the exact scope of the coming laws, one result of today's decision is certain: the curtailment of women's rights, and of their status as free and equal citizens ... from the very moment of fertilization, a woman has no rights to speak of." The dissenting justices also noted that the decision will unduly impact pregnant people who may not have the resources to travel to obtain abortions in states where it remains legal.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. voted with the majority but said he would have taken “a more measured course,” stopping short of overruling Roe entirely. Roberts wrote in his concurring opinion that he would have upheld a Mississippi law banning abortions after 15 weeks.
This decision comes on the heels of a leaked initial draft opinion by Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, Jr. that came to light in early May. Here’s what Roe v. Wade ruled, what the unprecedented decision means for abortion access in America right now and what’s likely to happen next.
What exactly did Roe v. Wade rule?
In 1973, Roe v. Wade affirmed that, under the 14th Amendment, pregnant people have a constitutional right to have an abortion up to about 23 weeks, or the period when a fetus is typically viable outside the womb, CNN explains. But in 2021, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a challenge to a Mississippi law that banned abortion after 15 weeks.
That set the wheels in motion to overturn Roe v. Wade in general, which the Biden administration urged the Courts not to do. At the time, Acting Solicitor General Brian H. Fletcher said that would "seriously undermine women's autonomy" and that the effects would likely "be felt most acutely by young women, women of color, and those of lesser means."
What did the leaked Supreme Court opinion draft say?
The draft opinion that leaked in May set the stage for what was to come. At the time, Alito wrote that Roe is “highly restrictive” and “the Constitution makes no reference to abortion, and no such right is implicitly protected by any constitutional provision,” according to a New York Times analysis of the document.
He also observed that Roe and subsequent decisions upholding it have “enflamed debate” and deepened divisions among pro-choice and anti-abortion factions. “The inescapable conclusion is that a right to abortion is not deeply rooted in the nation’s history and traditions,” the draft continued. “On the contrary, an unbroken tradition of prohibiting abortion on pain of criminal punishment persisted from the earliest days of the common law until 1973.”
What happens now that Roe v. Wade has been overturned?
Legislators in 13 states have "trigger laws," or abortion bans designed to take effect immediately or soon after Roe is overturned, CNN reports. In some cases, the law requires an official like an attorney general to certify that Roe has been struck down before the law can go into effect. Those states include Arkansas, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Wyoming and Utah.
Some state legislatures have already ruled to limit abortion access and others are preparing to do so. Those include Michigan, Wisconsin and West Virginia, which had already restricted abortion before Roe. Others, like Alabama, Georgia, Iowa, Ohio and South Carolina have “heartbeat laws” that ban the procedure after a certain number of weeks. Many of those have subsequently been blocked by the courts. In total, an analysis by the Guttmacher Institute found that 23 states have laws on the books or in the works that limit abortion access, some of them more than one.
On the other hand, some state legislatures have already passed laws that seek to improve abortion access, including California, which passed a law in March to remove out-of-pocket costs for abortions covered by health insurance. In Colorado, Democratic lawmakers codified the right to abortion, as well. In December 2021, the U.S. government made permanent its COVID-era rule change that allows a pregnant person to obtain abortion medications like Mifeprex and its generic by mail. It’s not legal in every state, but Plan C has searchable information about medication abortion by state and AbortionFinder.org offers details about both abortion pills and procedures. The National Abortion Federation Hotline (1-800-772-9100) also provides free referrals and information.
This new argument also calls into question another landmark case from 1992, Planned Parenthood v. Casey. That decision stated that individual states could not impose an undue burden on abortion access, according to The New York Times and has helped uphold access along with Roe since then.
Public opinion still sides with abortion access:
A broad majority of Americans did not want to see Roe vs. Wade overturned, according to a May CNN poll. Respondents voted 66% to 34%, that they did not want the Supreme Court to completely overturn its decision. In that same poll, 58% of U.S. adults said that, if Roe were overturned, they'd want their state to set abortion laws that were more permissive and 51% said they'd want their state to offer a safe haven for people who had to travel to access abortions.
Already, politicians and activists have responded to the decision, on both sides of the issue. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the ruling "such an insult, a slap in the face to women. This morning the radical Supreme Court is eviscerating women's rights and endangering their health and safety," she said. "Today the Republican-controlled courts achieve their dark, extreme goal of repealing a woman's right to make their own health decisions."
On the other hand, former Vice President Mike Pence commended the justices in their decision, calling it "a new beginning for life." He said, "Now that Roe v. Wade has been consigned to the ash heap of history, a new arena in the cause of life has emerged, and it is incumbent on all who cherish the sanctity of life to resolve that we will take the defense of the unborn and the support for women in crisis pregnancy centers to every state in America."
As he closed his speech, Biden urged voters to make their priorities clear at the ballot box. "Voters need to make their voices heard," Biden said. "This fall Roe is on the ballot. Personal freedoms are on the ballot. The right to privacy, liberty, equality, they're all on the ballot."
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