The Stakes In The Supreme Court’s Upcoming Abortion Case Are So High
Yeah, this is worrying.
Mark your calendars: There’s another concerning challenge to abortion rights in the works. On Monday, May 17, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a case concerning a controversial Mississippi law that would severely undermine abortion rights established by Roe v. Wade. Abortion access has always been hotly contested in America, but here’s why experts say you should be especially worried over the newest Supreme Court battle over reproductive rights.
At the center of the case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, is a Mississippi bill, first passed in March 2018, that would effectively ban abortions after 15 weeks. Although the legislation made exceptions for cases of medical emergencies and severe fetal abnormalities, it prohibited abortion access in cases of rape or incest. While the 1973 standard set by Roe v. Wade determined that people have the right to abortion up until fetal viability — the point at which the fetus can survive on its own outside the womb, usually around the 22nd-24th week of pregnancy — the Mississippi law moves that deadline much earlier.
In November 2018, the measure was blocked from going into effect by a federal judge, who ruled the bill unconstitutional. “The state chose to pass a law it knew was unconstitutional to endorse a decades-long campaign, fueled by national interest groups, to ask the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade,” Judge Carlton W. Reeves wrote in his decision. “This court follows the commands of the Supreme Court and the dictates of the United States Constitution, rather than the disingenuous calculations of the Mississippi Legislature,” he added. In late 2019, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that decision, and now an appeal by the state of Mississippi has taken the question to the Supreme Court.
The bill, and its journey to the Supreme Court, is part of a well-documented pattern in which anti-abortion advocates pass unconstitutional laws in the hopes that challenges and appeals will take it all the way to the Supreme Court, giving the highest court the opportunity to overturn or otherwise undermine Roe — which, with a newfound conservative majority, it might. “The fact that the court is willing to hear the case is essentially acknowledging that it’s willing to [re]consider the basic precedent of Roe v. Wade,” says Dr. Daniel Grossman, director at Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH). “That’s the biggest concern.”
At question in the case is whether all state laws that limit abortion before viability are unconstitutional. The effects of a ruling in Mississippi’s favor would be huge: Around the country, 10 states already have “trigger laws” on the books, per the Guttmacher Institute: These laws would automatically ban abortion in their state should Roe v. Wade be overturned. Another 11 states have abortion restrictions in place. Only 14 states, plus Washington, D.C., explicitly protect the right to abortion. “Rather than an overt overturning of the ruling [in] Roe v. Wade,” says Grossman, the United States is witnessing “a serious chipping away at the precedent.” Through a direct overturn or not, Grossman says the effect is largely the same: “It sends a signal that a state could essentially pass almost any restriction that they want.”
Mississippi wouldn’t be the only state affected. In fact, millions of people across the country could lose access to critical abortion care.
“Abortion care will be pushed out of reach for the most marginalized populations,” says Aimee Arrambide, executive director of Avow Texas. On May 19, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed a law which would ban abortions after a heartbeat is detected, usually around six weeks into pregnancy. Arrambide explains how people with money, privilege, and the ability to travel were always able to access abortion care, even before the 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade, and that would likely continue should Roe be overturned. “That won’t change — people will still be able to access abortion care if they have the means to pay for it,” she adds. However, when it comes to low-income communities and disenfranchised communities of color, “people won’t have access,” Arrambide says.
Dobbs will be the third time in the past five years that the court has heard a major abortion case — in 2016, it ruled against TRAP laws designed to put abortion providers out of business in Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt, and just a few years later effectively reaffirmed that ruling in 2020’s June Medical Services v. Russo. However, with the Trump-era appointments of conservative justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett, the judicial landscape has changed dramatically. “There is now a 6-3 conservative majority” on the court, Grossman says. “People who watch the court closely are very concerned about what this could mean for the future of abortion access.”
If you’re currently seeking an abortion in Mississippi, don’t worry just yet: the Supreme Court won’t hear the case until October 2021, meaning a decision likely won’t arrive until June 2022, per CNBC. In the meantime, the law remains blocked from taking effect in Mississippi until the Supreme Court hears the case and issues a final decision.
To help this critical reproductive care remain as accessible as possible, Grossman recommends donating to your local abortion care funds. These funds “support people who are seeking abortion care financially, often to offset the cost of the procedure,” Grossman states. “I think that will be particularly important if these laws come into effect to help patients who are living on low [income],” he adds. Whether you need funding for an upcoming abortion procedure or you’re just looking to donate, you can search the National Network of Abortion Funds to find an organization in your state.
Arrambide agrees supporting your local abortion care fund is critical, especially if the Supreme Court rules in favor of upholding Mississippi’s restrictive law: “We know [abortions] have been occurring for the past 4,000 years, regardless of whether it’s legal or not legal,” she says. "People will always have abortions. It's just a matter of whether you want that right to be exclusive to the most privileged people, or if you want everyone to have access to the health care they need."