The Supreme Court on Friday overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling that guaranteed a constitutional right to an abortion in a 6-3 vote, a momentous break from a half-century of rulings on one of the nation’s most controversial issues. About half the states have already indicated they would move to ban the procedure.
Supporters of abortion rights were bracing for the loss after an early draft of the opinion was leaked in May, touching off several days of demonstrations in more than two dozen cities. Protesters even showed up outside the homes of some members of the court.
Alarmed by the prospect that Roe would be overturned, Democrats in Congress responded to the leak by holding a Senate vote to advance legislation that would guarantee access to abortion nationwide. The bill was blocked, however, in a largely party-line vote.
The court’s ruling does not make abortion illegal, but with access to the procedure no longer deemed a constitutional right, states can now move to ban it. About half of them have already indicated a willingness to do so.
Legal scholars said the decision to overrule Roe marked one of the few times the Supreme Court has ever invalidated an earlier decision that declared a constitutional right — and was the only time it took away a right that had considerable public support.
For abortion opponents who have fought Roe for decades, the court’s decision was a huge victory. But it was a bitter defeat for advocates of abortion rights, who struggled to maintain them while courts narrowed their application over the past five decades.
The ruling came in a dispute over a 2018 law passed by Mississippi’s Republican legislature to ban abortions after 15 weeks. The law, which made exceptions for medical emergencies or cases of severe fetal abnormality but not for rape or incest, was immediately challenged and put on hold by lower courts.
Supporters said the measure was intended to regulate “inhumane procedures” and argued that a fetus is capable of detecting and responding to pain by that point in a pregnancy.
Mississippi’s law constituted a direct attack on the court’s landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision as well as a follow-on ruling in 1992, Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Under those decisions, states could impose some restrictions on abortion before viability provided they did not constitute an “undue burden” on the right of access to the procedure. But flat out bans before viability, generally considered to be about 24 weeks into a pregnancy, were deemed to be unconstitutional.
Those rulings are no longer the law of the land, and one reason is the court’s changed composition. Two members of the court who joined in its earlier abortion decisions, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Anthony Kennedy, were succeeded by justices appointed by former President Donald Trump: Amy Coney Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh. Trump had declared that he would put “pro-life justices on the court.”
The Center for Reproductive Rights had urged the court to maintain its earlier abortion rulings that upheld a right of access to abortion.
“Two generations have now relied on this right, and one out of every four women makes a decision to end a pregnancy,” Julie Rikelman, a lawyer for the group, told the justices.
Lawyers for Mississippi, however, said the law would have a minimal impact on women in Mississippi because the state’s only abortion clinic does not perform the procedure after 16 weeks. More than 90 percent of abortions take place before or during the 13th week of pregnancy, they said.
The court’s decision was the second ruling this term limiting access to abortion. In December the court allowed a Texas law to remain in force while lower court challenges are underway. The law effectively bans abortion after six weeks of pregnancy by authorizing lawsuits against abortion providers or anyone who assists them.
Its unorthodox method of enforcement was intended to get around the Supreme Court’s earlier abortion rulings that prevented states from simply banning abortion directly. But last June, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a law that would ban abortion in the state within 30 days after a ruling striking down Roe.
In about half the country, abortion is soon likely to be illegal. Texas is one of about two dozen states that were considered certain or likely to ban abortion once the Supreme Court’s abortion precedents were overturned. Thirteen of those states already have measures known as trigger laws, intended to take effect when Roe was overturned or shortly after.
But abortion will remain legal in the other half of the nation, including in such populous states as California, New York, Illinois, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.