In the wake of a federal judge’s ruling to ban preterm viability abortions in Texas, another crucial abortion case is mounting in Mississippi. Only this time, it’s going to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, and its outcome could result in sweeping and immediate ramifications across the country.
On December 1, SCOTUS will hear arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which will determine whether all state laws that ban abortions are unconstitutional. This is the first time since Roe v. Wade that the court will rule on the constitutionality of a pre-viability abortion ban; the landmark ruling in 1973 legalized abortions nationwide before fetal viability, which is around 24 weeks of pregnancy, and formally recognized that the decision to continue a pregnancy or have an abortion belongs to the individual, not the government.
This case hinges on Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban, which was passed by state lawmakers in 2018 but swiftly blocked by lower federal courts. The law prohibited any abortion operation after the first 15 weeks of pregnancy without exceptions for cases of rape or incest. State lawmakers are now asking the high court to overturn the long-established legal precedent involving fetal viability.
If the court were to overturn Roe, the consequences would be felt widely and swiftly. Several states across the country currently have “trigger laws”—laws that are currently unenforceable but could become so due to a change of circumstance—that would automatically go into effect and outlaw most or all abortions. These include Arkansas, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and Oklahoma. Many of these states have prepared laws declaring their intent to ban abortion outright, with exceptions only for cases of rape and incest, or if medically necessary to save a mother’s life. Others have approved fetal heartbeat bills—which prohibit abortion once a heartbeat is detected, typically six weeks into a pregnancy—or amended their state's constitution to declare that it does not preserve protections for abortion and will not allow abortion to be publicly funded.
Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization will be one of the first reproductive rights cases argued before the Supreme Court since Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation in 2020. Many reproductive rights advocates and activists fear that the court’s 6–3 conservative majority will either overturn Roe entirely or further create barriers to abortion access nationwide.
Jackson Women’s Health Organization, regarded as The Pink House for its can’t-miss-it exterior, is currently the only remaining abortion clinic in Mississippi. As in many states today, clinics across Mississippi were systematically shuttered due in part to increasingly binding restrictions on abortion, including state-mandated ultrasounds, waiting periods, and parental consent.
Mississippi isn’t the only state facing a recent series of abortion bills. According to the Guttmacher Institute, since January of this year, there have been 546 abortion restrictions introduced across 47 states; between January 1, 2011, and July 1, 2019, they recorded that 483 new abortion restrictions were enacted nationwide, accounting for nearly 40 percent of all abortion restrictions enacted by states since Roe v. Wade. Of the most common are laws that institute licensing requirements, known as Targeted Regulation of Abortion Provider (TRAP) laws, requiring abortion clinics to be located within a specified radius of a hospital, to function as ambulatory surgical centers, or to require providers to secure admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. According to the Guttmacher Institute, TRAP laws have been responsible for the closure of 50 clinics in the South and 33 in the Midwest.
Following the decision of the court to let Texas’s abortion law go into effect on September 1, the Biden administration called the move “an unprecedented assault on a woman’s constitutional rights under Roe v. Wade, which has been the law of the land for almost fifty years.” When SCOTUS agreed to hear arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the administration doubled down, stating that it “will not allow this country to go backwards on women’s equality.” Last spring, the administration signed an executive order establishing a commission to examine potential changes to SCOTUS—including the addition of more left-leaning justices—but as of now, no moves have been made to expand the court.
Pro-choice advocates have been preparing for this moment since far before the Texas ruling. In September, more than 500 athletes including Megan Rapinoe, Layshia Clarendon, Crissy Perham, and a slew of other Olympians and professional and intercollegiate athletes filed a 73-page amicus brief to the court voicing their support for abortion rights. More recently, on October 2, thousands attended reproductive rights rallies and marches across the country, while Representatives Cori Bush, Pramila Jayapal, and Barbara Lee testified before the House Oversight Committee about their abortions in support of upholding pro-choice legislation.
In early October, the Biden administration reversed a Trump-era restriction that banned abortion provider referrals by family planning clinics, and not long after the ruling in Texas, a pivotal piece of legislation, the Women’s Health Protection Act, which protects abortion access by creating a statutory right for health care providers to provide abortion care free from restrictions and bans, passed in the House. However, it’s predicted to be stopped in the Senate, given it requires 10 Republicans to support it.
Still, as many states have made moves to restrict abortion, there are at least 13—California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Nevada, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington—that have enacted protections for abortion rights in a post-Roe reality. Even if Roe v. Wade is overturned at the federal level, these state rulings would not be affected and would allow the procedure to remain legal and accessible within state lines.
The final ruling of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization is expected by the end of June 2022.
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