On Monday, the US Supreme Court agreed to hear a challenge to a Mississippi law that bans almost all abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. This case presents a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 case that essentially legalised abortion in the US, and it will be the first abortion case argued before the Supreme Court since the anti-abortion Justice Amy Coney Barrett was confirmed last autumn, giving conservatives a 6-3 majority.
What is Jackson Women’s Health Organization v. Dobbs?
Jackson Women’s Health Organization v. Dobbs was filed in March 2018 by the Center for Reproductive Rights on behalf of Jackson Women’s Health Organization — the last remaining abortion clinic in Mississippi — to block the state’s unconstitutional 15-week abortion ban. The law, enacted by the Republican-dominated state legislature, would ban abortions if “the probable gestational age of the unborn human” is determined to be more than 15 weeks, with limited exceptions for medical emergencies or “a severe foetal abnormality.” It would also hand down severe penalties on doctors who provide abortion care after 15 weeks.
The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the law in December 2019, upholding a lower court’s 2018 decision. “In an unbroken line dating to Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court’s abortion cases have established (and affirmed, and re-affirmed) a woman’s right to choose an abortion before viability,” Judge Patrick Higginbotham wrote in the decision. “States may regulate abortion procedures prior to viability so long as they do not impose an undue burden on the woman’s right, but they may not ban abortions.”
Why does it matter that the Supreme Court has decided to take on the case?
This case provides a clear path to potentially overturning Roe v. Wade and allowing outright bans on abortion on a state by state level, which is what anti-choice activists have wanted all along. The Supreme Court could not uphold Mississippi’s abortion ban without overturning Roe v. Wade’s core holding, so the case presents a major threat to reproductive rights across the country. Roe prohibits states from banning abortions before fetal viability, the point when foetuses can sustain life outside of the womb, or around 23 or 24 weeks. This will be the first “pre-viability” abortion ban the higher court will rule on since Roe.
“This will be, by far, the most important abortion case the Court will have heard since the [Planned Parenthood v.] Casey decision in 1992,” University of Texas School of Law professor Steve Vladeck told CNN. “If states are allowed to effectively ban abortions after the 15th week of pregnancy, as the Mississippi law in this case does, then pregnant women would have a far shorter window in which they could lawfully obtain an abortion than what Roe and Casey currently require.”
What will happen if Roe v. Wade is overturned?
If Roe v. Wade is overturned, over 20 states would be able to prohibit abortion outright, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights. Eleven states, including Mississippi, already have “trigger bans” on the books, which means they would immediately ban abortion after an overturn of Roe.
“Alarm bells are ringing loudly about the threat to reproductive rights,” Nancy Northup, President & CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement provided to Refinery29. “The Supreme Court just agreed to review an abortion ban that unquestionably violates nearly 50 years of Supreme Court precedent and is a test case to overturn Roe v. Wade.”
Anti-choice lawmakers in states across the country have already been chipping away at abortion rights for years, making the procedure all-but-impossible to access in many places: Just this year, they have introduced, advanced, or passed over 300 anti-choice bills. Reminder: 77% of Americans are in favour of upholding Roe v. Wade.
What would happen to the sole abortion clinic in Mississippi?
For now, abortion remains legal in Mississippi and the unconstitutional ban will continue to be blocked as the Supreme Court reviews this case.
“As the only abortion clinic left in Mississippi, we see patients who have spent weeks saving up the money to travel here and pay for childcare, for a place to stay, and everything else involved,” Diane Derzis, owner of Jackson Women’s Health Organization, said in a statement provided to Refinery29. “If this ban were to take effect, we would be forced to turn many of those patients away, and they would lose their right to abortion in this state. Mississippi politicians have created countless barriers for people trying to access abortion, intentionally pushing them later into pregnancy. It’s all part of their strategy to eliminate abortion access entirely.”
When will the case be heard?
The Supreme Court will likely hear the case in its next term, which starts in October, with the decision probably coming in spring or summer of next year — not long before the pivotal 2022 US midterm elections.
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