US reproductive rights groups are bracing for the most consequential abortion case in decades, after the supreme court agreed to hear a case that flies in the face of precedent.
The case could dramatically alter decades of rulings on abortion rights and eventually lead to dramatic restrictions on abortion access.
In the case, Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Mississippi’s last abortion clinic is challenging the constitutionality of a ban on abortions later than the 15th week of pregnancy.
The state is not asking the court to overrule Roe v Wade, or later cases that reaffirmed it. But many supporters of abortion rights are alarmed and many opponents of abortion are elated that the justices could undermine earlier abortion rulings.
If the court upholds Mississippi’s law, it would be its first ratification of an abortion ban before 24 weeks. Such a ruling could lay the groundwork for allowing even more restrictions on abortion. That includes state bans on abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected, as early as six weeks.
“It is incredibly concerning that the supreme court has taken a case that, based on its own precedents, it should have dismissed months ago,” said Elizabeth Nash, principal policy associate with the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights research organization.
“Make no mistake: the purpose of any abortion ban – including this 15-week ban in Mississippi – is to snowball into an outright ban on all abortion at any point in pregnancy and for any reason,” Nash said.
The case will become the first to be heard by a conservative bench remade by Donald Trump, which includes the devout Catholic supreme court justice Amy Coney Barrett.
“Alarm bells are ringing loudly about the threat to reproductive rights,” said Nancy Northup, CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, a legal group representing Mississippi’s last abortion clinic, Jackson Women’s Health Organization.
“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,” Northup said.
Abortion is legal in all 50 states, even as advocates say increased restrictions currently make it unavailable to many women. Restrictions on reproductive rights disproportionately affect low-income and minority women.
If Roe were overturned, more than 20 states would ban abortion outright. Many states, including Mississippi, have enacted “trigger” laws to immediately outlaw abortion should the supreme court make such a decision.
If Mississippi’s law were to be upheld and Roe not entirely overturned, states may be able to make abortion illegal at 15 weeks. That would narrow the window in which women can seek abortions by more than two months. Roe set the legal standard of viability in 1973, and it has become a linchpin of abortion rights law in the US.
“Once viability is gone, all bets are off,” the law professor Mary Ziegler said on Twitter. She said anti-abortion activists were “banking on”, much earlier limits, hoping the court will allow states to ban abortion after six or eight weeks. That is before many women know they are pregnant.
Even before the court took up the case, 2021 has become the most hostile year on record for reproductive rights in the US. The new makeup of the supreme court has prompted optimistic Republican lawmakers to pass more restrictions, hoping to send test cases to the court.
Since January, more than 500 abortion restrictions have been introduced across 46 states. Sixty-one restrictions and eight bans have been enacted across 13 states. In 2011, 42 restrictions and six bans were enacted.
Even as some Republican state politicians disagree with colleagues over severe abortion restrictions – some recently introduced bills would charge women and doctors with murder – such rhetoric remains a cornerstone of Republican organizing and fundraising.
About six in 10 Americans believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, according to the Pew Research Center, a remarkably steady level of support. However, the partisan divide over abortion rights has grown. In recent years, Democrats have grown more likely to believe abortion should remain legal and available.