By Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday overturned the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that recognized women's constitutional right to abortion, a decision condemned by President Joe Biden that will dramatically change life for millions of women in America and exacerbate growing tensions in a deeply polarized country.
The court, in a 6-3 ruling powered by its conservative majority, upheld a Republican-backed Mississippi law that bans abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy. The vote was 5-4 to overturn Roe, with conservative Chief Justice John Roberts writing separately to say he would have upheld the Mississippi law without taking the additional step of erasing the Roe precedent altogether.
The reverberations of the ruling will be felt far beyond the court's high-security confines - potentially reshaping the battlefield in November's elections to determine whether Biden's fellow Democrats retain control of Congress and signaling a new openness by the justices to change other long-recognized rights.
The decision will also intensify debate over the legitimacy of the court, once an unassailable cornerstone of the American democratic system but increasingly under scrutiny for its more aggressively conservative decisions on a range of issues.
The ruling restored the ability of states to ban abortion. Twenty-six states are either certain or considered likely to ban abortion. Mississippi is among 13 states with so-called trigger laws to ban abortion with Roe overturned. (For related graphic click https://tmsnrt.rs/3Njv3Cw)
In a concurring opinion that raised concerns the justices might roll back other rights, conservative Justice Clarence Thomas urged the court to reconsider past rulings protecting the right to contraception, legalizing gay marriage nationwide, and invalidating state laws banning gay sex.
The justices, in the ruling written by conservative Justice Samuel Alito, held that the Roe decision that allowed abortions performed before a fetus would be viable outside the womb - which occurs between 24 and 28 weeks of pregnancy - was wrongly decided because the U.S. Constitution makes no specific mention of abortion rights.
Women with unwanted pregnancies in large swathes of America now may face the choice of traveling to another state where the procedure remains legal and available, buying abortion pills online, or having a potentially dangerous illegal abortion.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh, in a concurring opinion, appeared to nix an idea advocated by some anti-abortion advocates that the next step is for the court to declare that the Constitution outlaws abortion. "The Constitution neither outlaws abortion nor legalizes abortion," Kavanaugh wrote.
Kavanaugh also said that the ruling does not let states bar residents from traveling to another state to obtain an abortion, or retroactively punish people for prior abortions.
Biden condemned the ruling as taking an "extreme and dangerous path."
"It's a sad day for the court and for the country," Biden said at the White House. "The court has done what it has never done before: expressly take away a constitutional right that is so fundamental to so many Americans."
Empowering states to ban abortion makes the United States an outlier among developed nations on protecting reproductive rights, the Democratic president added.
Biden urged Congress to pass a law protecting abortion rights, an unlikely proposition given its partisan divisions. Biden said his administration will protect women's access to medications approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration including pills for contraception and medication abortion, while also combating efforts to restrict women from traveling to other states to obtain abortions.
Britain, France and some other nations called the ruling a step backward, although the Vatican praised it, saying it challenged the world to reflect on life issues.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the decision was "a loss for women everywhere". "Watching the removal of a woman's fundamental right to make decisions over their own body is incredibly upsetting," she said in a statement.
U.S. companies including Walt Disney Co, AT&T and Facebook parent Meta Platforms Inc said they will cover employees' expenses if they now have to travel for abortion services.
A draft version of Alito's ruling indicating the court was ready to overturn Roe was leaked in May, igniting a political firestorm. Friday's ruling largely tracked this leaked draft.
"The Constitution makes no reference to abortion, and no such right is implicitly protected by any constitutional provision," Alito wrote in the ruling.
Roe v. Wade recognized that the right to personal privacy under the Constitution protects a woman's ability to terminate her pregnancy. The Supreme Court in a 1992 ruling called Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey reaffirmed abortion rights and prohibited laws imposing an "undue burden" on abortion access. Friday's ruling overturned the Casey decision as well.
"Roe was egregiously wrong from the start. Its reasoning was exceptionally weak, and the decision has had damaging consequences. And far from bringing about a national settlement of the abortion issue, Roe and Casey have enflamed debate and deepened division," Alito added.
The court's three liberal justices - Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan - issued a jointly authored dissent.
"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," they wrote.
As a result of Friday's ruling, "from the very moment of fertilization, a woman has no rights to speak of. A state can force her to bring a pregnancy to term, even at the steepest personal and familial costs," the liberal justices added.
The ruling empowered states to ban abortion just a day after the court's conservative majority issued another decision limiting the ability of states to enact gun restrictions.
The abortion and gun rulings illustrated the polarization in America on a range of issues, also including race and voting rights.
Overturning Roe was long a goal of Christian conservatives and many Republican officeholders, including former President Donald Trump, who as a candidate in 2016 promised to appoint justices to the Supreme Court who would reverse Roe. During his term he named three to the bench, all of whom joined the majority in the ruling.
Asked in a Fox News interview whether he deserved some credit for the ruling, Trump said: "God made the decision."
Crowds gathered outside the courthouse, surrounded by a tall security fence. Anti-abortion activists erupted in cheers after the ruling, while some abortion rights supporters were in tears.
"I'm ecstatic," said Emma Craig, 36, of Pro Life San Francisco. "Abortion is the biggest tragedy of our generation and in 50 years we'll look back at the 50 years we've been under Roe v. Wade with shame."
Hours later, protesters angered by the decision still gathered outside the court, as did crowds in cities from coast to coast including New York, Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles and Seattle.
House of Representatives Speaker Democrat Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, denounced the decision, saying that a "Republican-controlled Supreme Court" has achieved that party's "dark and extreme goal of ripping away women's right to make their own reproductive health decisions."
The number of U.S. abortions increased by 8% during the three years ending in 2020, reversing a 30-year trend of declining numbers, according to data https://www.guttmacher.org/article/2022/06/long-term-decline-us-abortions-reverses-showing-rising-need-abortion-supreme-court released on June 15 by the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung; Additional reporting by Katanga Johnson and Rose Horowitch; Writing by Lawrence Hurley and Ross Colvin; Editing by Will Dunham, Scott Malone, Daniel Wallis and Michael Perry)