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What You Should Know About The Supreme Court's New Abortion Case
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What You Should Know About The Supreme Court's New Abortion Case

The United States Supreme Court justices have stated that they are willing to reconsider the reproductive protections established nearly five decades ago in Roe v. Wade, setting the stage for a long-awaited abortion rights battle.

The justices announced on Monday that they will hear a case involving a Mississippi ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, the first time the nation's highest court has considered an abortion ban since that landmark decision in 1973, which has protected access to the procedure for 48 years.

Former President Donald Trump's influence on the court, which is now stacked with three of his conservative nominees in lifetime appointments, could soon be felt by the hundreds of thousands of patients who seek abortion care in the United States each year.

Here's what you need to know about the case, which is expected to be heard by the Supreme Court in late fall.

It is about prohibiting abortions before the fetus is viable outside the womb.

The justices will hear arguments on a law enacted in Mississippi in 2018 but blocked from going into effect, which would prohibit abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy, with only medical emergencies or fetal abnormalities as exceptions.

The Supreme Court will hear one of three questions in the case: “Whether all pre-viability prohibitions on elective abortions are unconstitutional,” a question that addresses not only Mississippi’s 15-week limit but also a slew of even more restrictive abortion bans that have sailed through state legislatures in recent years.

Following its passage, abortion rights advocates immediately challenged the legislation, claiming that it was clearly in violation of Roe v. Wade protections, which established that lawmakers may not impose excessive government restrictions on a woman's right to choose.

The architects of this legislation, like those of so many others before it, designed it explicitly as a litmus test for a conservative Supreme Court, and it will be heard as Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, a battle between Mississippi's state health director and the state's sole remaining abortion clinic.

“It’s like a shot in the back to women,” Shannon Brewer, clinic director at Jackson Women’s Health Organization, said on a conference call with reporters Monday in response to the development. “This all came down to me so quickly this morning, and I haven’t actually gotten myself completely together from it, but I know that this is going to be a devastating impact, for women not only in Jackson, but across the country.”

Lower courts have unilaterally ruled against the Mississippi law, making it an unusual case for the Supreme Court to take on. Legal analysts noted that it took nearly eight months for the justices to make Monday's decision, indicating that there may have been a significant battle behind the scenes about whether to take on the case.

What if the Supreme Court rules in favor of the ban?

A decision in favor of pre-viability bans would effectively nullify Roe v. Wade, according to Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR), during a conference call with reporters on Monday.

“The court cannot uphold this law in Mississippi without overturning Roe’s core holding,” she explained, “and that core holding is that every pregnant person has the right to decide whether to continue their pregnancy prior to viability, which has been reaffirmed time and time again.”

Because so many state legislatures are already hostile to abortion rights and have so-called “trigger laws” that would immediately ban abortion in those states if Roe v. Wade is overturned, the court’s decision has grave consequences.

“The stakes are extraordinarily high here,” Northup said, adding that if the court weakens the right to abortion, abortion would likely be prohibited in half of the country, including many areas in the South and Midwest.

The Center for Reproductive Rights estimates that if Roe v. Wade is overturned, 24 states will likely outlaw abortion completely.

People of color and those struggling to make ends meet would be the most affected, as “they already face significant barriers to accessing abortion,” Northup added.

What are the chances of the Supreme Court ruling?

It's difficult to say, but there are some historical hints.

The court's most recent major abortion case was in June 2020, when it overturned a Louisiana law severely restricting who could provide abortions. The law was supported by the court's four most conservative justices at the time, all of whom are still on the bench, and Chief Justice John Roberts cast a swing vote with the liberal justices, citing precedent on the issue.

But much has changed since then. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a staunch supporter of reproductive rights, died three months after that decision, and Trump replaced her with Amy Coney Barrett, who has hinted that she is open to overturning Roe v. Wade and once signed her name to an ad calling it a “barbaric legacy.”

The court now has only three members who are firmly committed to upholding Roe v. Wade: Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan, which means that at least two members of the court's more conservative faction would have to side with them to protect abortion access.

Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch appear unlikely to be among those justices, while Roberts and Brett Kavanaugh appear to be the most hesitant to overturn long-standing precedent, but that is far from certain.

Reproductive rights advocates are extremely concerned about this.

“Although Donald Trump is no longer in the White House, he leaves behind a dark legacy of anti-choice, anti-freedom judges hostile to our fundamental rights,” said Christian LoBue, chief campaigns and advocacy officer at NARAL Pro-Choice America, in a statement Monday.

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