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Overturning Roe

Overturning Roe

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A leaked opinion by the US Supreme Court suggests that it could reverse an historic ruling that gives women the right to have an abortion. What impact would that have?

“Good evening and a landmark ruling. The Supreme Court today legalised abortions. The majority in cases from Texas and Georgia said that the decision to end a pregnancy in the first three months belongs to the woman and her doctor, not the government.”

CBS News, 1973

It was a huge moment in the history of the United States.

On the 22nd of January 1973, the Supreme Court ruled on Roe v Wade – a case between a woman known as Jane Roe who wanted an abortion in Texas, and a local attorney called Henry Wade.

It voted in favour of Jane Roe.

Women across the United States were elated. As were organisations like Planned Parenthood, which provide reproductive health care.

“I think that to raise the dignity of the woman and gave her freedom of choice in this area is an extraordinary event. And I think that January 22 1973 will be a historic day.”

Dr Alan Guttmacher, Planned Parenthood federation

But the ruling was the beginning of a long fight between people who call themselves pro-choice and those who call themselves pro-life.

It was a fight which played out in America’s highest court all over again in 1992, this time in a case brought by Planned Parenthood.

“Ergo it follows that a total prohibition protected by criminal penalties would be rational if it would meet your standard.” “I don’t think so. The common law…” “What is your rational basis? It’s not the traditional one.”

Planned Parenthood v Casey oral arguments

The Supreme Court affirmed Roe v Wade, but it also ruled states could regulate abortions in certain circumstances.

So the debate rumbled on… setting the scene for this latest case, which seeks to overrule those two previous judgements, leaving it up to individual states to decide.

And it’s the Supreme Court’s draft opinion on that case that was this week leaked to the news website, Politico.

It runs to 98 pages, but these are the crucial lines.

“We hold that Roe and Casey must be overruled… Roe was egregiously wrong from the start. Its reasoning was exceptionally weak, and the decision has had damaging consequences. And far from bringing about a national settlement of the abortion issue, Roe and Casey have enflamed debate and deepened division.”

Supreme Court draft opinion

If accepted, the decision would have enormous ramifications for millions of women and make the US just the fourth country to curtail abortion rights in nearly thirty years, after Poland, Nicaragua and El Salvador.

Which is why thousands of people have protested outside the Supreme Court.

“Abortion is healthcare, abortion is healthcare…”

Chanting outside Supreme Court

Including Democrat senator, Elizabeth Warren.

“The Republicans have been working toward this day for decades. They have been out their plotting, carefully cultivating these Supreme Court justices so they could have a majority on the bench who could accomplish something that the majority of Americans do not want.”

Elizabeth Warren outside Supreme Court

So… how did we get here?

“Do you want to see the court overturn Roe v Wade?”

“Well if we put another two or perhaps three justices on, that will happen. And it’ll happen automatically in my opinion because I am putting pro-life justices on the court.”

Donald Trump, 2016 presidential debate

Back in 2016, Donald Trump ran for office as an anti-abortion candidate.

He won, of course, and as president he appointed hundreds of judges to courts across the United States.

But his biggest judicial victory came during his last months in the White House.

“I, Amy Coney Barrett, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the constitution of the United States…”

Amy Coney Barrett, swearing in ceremony

Following the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a liberal justice who supported abortion rights, Donald Trump appointed Amy Coney Barrett – an anti-abortion conservative. 

She tipped the balance of the Supreme Court definitively against abortion.

In September 2021, the Supreme Court allowed Texas to implement a ban on the procedure after six weeks of pregnancy. 

And crucially, the Supreme Court also agreed to consider Dobbs v Jackson, a case which focuses on whether the state of Mississippi can outlaw most abortions after 15 weeks. 

This is the case on which Samuel Alito, one of the Supreme Court’s conservative justices, wrote the draft opinion that leaked this week… ruling in favour of Mississippi.

It would overturn Roe v Wade and Planned Parenthood v Casey.

But what might that mean in practice?

***

If Roe v Wade is overturned, the Guttmacher Institute – which focuses on reproductive healthcare – thinks 26 states are certain or likely to ban abortion.

That would affect 58 per cent of US women of reproductive age, or 50 million people, who live in states likely to restrict their right to an abortion.

The number of procedures carried out legally is estimated to fall by around 14 per cent, because some women will travel to a state where abortion is legal. 

But a world without Roe would disproportionately endanger Black women… who are roughly four times as likely to have an abortion than white women and also four times as likely to die from pregnancy-related complications. 

It would also have a disproportionate impact on people who are Latina, unmarried, in their 20s, or poor… many of whom can’t easily travel to access abortion care. 

At the moment, you need to drive 8 miles on average to get an abortion in Florida, where there are 4.6 million women of reproductive age. 

That would rise to an average of 575 miles.

There would be enormous strain on services in states like North Carolina, which… if it doesn’t itself impose a ban… would become the closest abortion provider for 11 million women, up from 230,000.

***

The Supreme Court’s draft ruling has already sent tremors across the United States.

But expect it to create a political earthquake if it solidifies into a final ruling, as it is expected to in late June or early July.

Roe v Wade could be overturned just months before midterm elections in which the entire House of Representatives is up for grabs, as well as 35 of the 100 seats in the Senate.

The Supreme Court may inadvertently hand the Democrats a political lifeline: an issue which the party can use to galvanise their voters. 

But that would be cold comfort for tens of millions of women in America.

Many would be aghast at the highest court in the land deciding what they can do with their own bodies.

Today’s story was written, produced and mixed by Xavier Greenwood.