The Mississippi abortion case going before the Supreme Court is the most consequential challenge to Roe v. Wade in decades

·4 min read
US Supreme Court
A view of the U.S. Supreme Court at sunset on November 29, 2021 in Washington, DC. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court will hear a case concerning a Mississippi law that would ban abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.Drew Angerer/Getty Images
  • The Supreme Court on Wednesday will hear the biggest challenge to abortion rights in almost three decades.

  • Mississippi is asking the court to overturn the 1973 landmark ruling Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion nationwide.

  • Abortion-rights supporters say overturning Roe would set the country backwards.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday will hear a case that directly challenges the constitutional right to an abortion established nearly 50 years ago.

Mississippi has called on the nation's highest court to overturn that 1973 landmark ruling, Roe v. Wade, a decision that would dramatically transform the country's abortion laws.

The GOP-led state passed a law in 2018 that prohibited abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy, much before the standard held in Roe, which is that states cannot ban abortion before roughly 24 weeks of pregnancy, the point when medical experts say a fetus can survive outside of the womb, commonly referred to as viability.

After the state's sole abortion provider, Jackson Women's Health Organization, sued Mississippi, lower courts struck down the law as unconstitutional. But Mississippi Department of Health state health officer Thomas Dobbs appealed to the Supreme Court, now stacked with a 6-3 conservative majority, which agreed to take up the challenge.

"It reflects the will of the people of Mississippi to protect life and women's health by limiting elective abortion after 15 weeks. Working together, we can find ways to both empower women and promote life," the state's Attorney General Lynn Fitch said in a recent video about the case.

Mississippi has also asked the high court to overrule a subsequent 1992 Supreme Court decision, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which maintained that states cannot impose an "undue burden" on abortion rights.

"Roe and Casey are egregiously wrong. They have proven hopelessly unworkable. They have inflicted profound damage. Decades of progress have overtaken them. Reliance interests do not support retaining them. And nothing but a full break from those cases can stem the harms they have caused," the state wrote in its brief to the court.

Wednesday's arguments on the case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, represents the high-stakes battle between anti-abortion advocates and pro-abortion rights supporters that has divided the country for generations.

Should the Supreme Court fulfill Mississippi's demands, the door would open for a slew of states to enact abortion restrictions or near-total bans on the procedure, substantially limiting abortion access to large swaths of the population. Twelve states, including Mississippi, have "trigger" laws to ban abortion that would automatically take effect if the court overturns Roe. In that scenario, a patient seeking an abortion in Mississippi would have to travel 428 miles to the nearest provider, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health data organization that supports abortion rights.

Those bans are likely to affect vulnerable populations like women of color, low-income women, and young women, who are less able to travel the long distances to obtain the care they seek if Roe is overturned, Kimberly Kelly, a sociologist focused on abortion politics at a Mississippi college, told Insider.

Women of color in the US already experience more unintended pregnancies because of factors such as racial and income inequalities and a lack of access to affordable healthcare, the Guttmacher Institute found.

A post-Roe future is "going to create just a perfect storm of concentrated human misery," Kelly said, adding that reversing the decades-old ruling would harm women, rather than "empower" them, as Mississippi has claimed.

The Center for Reproductive Rights, an abortion-rights organization set to defend Mississippi's abortion provider at the Supreme Court, hopes the justices will follow precedent to avoid that potential reality.

"It would really create chaos and fear and heartache for many people who are making serious and thoughtful decisions about their bodies, families, lives and futures, and really create two Americas, especially for folks who would be able to get out of state versus those who cannot," Jenny Ma, senior staff attorney at the Center for Reproductive Rights, told Insider.

"This is a pivotal moment for the rule of law," she added. "The Supreme Court has recognized and protected this right for over 50 years under the Constitution. Myself as a lawyer — who's been trained to know that the rule of law will be followed — that part of me is optimistic because I know that the court has been asked several times to overrule Roe, including the same arguments that Mississippi has made, and rejected those arguments every single time. I think it would be very backwards if this case were to reach a different decision."

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