WASHINGTON — It’s been nearly 50 years since the U.S. Supreme Court, in its landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, decided that women have a constitutional right to abortion.
Now, the court has agreed to take on a major abortion case from Mississippi that could dramatically alter decades of rulings on abortion rights and ultimately lead to dramatic restrictions on abortion access.
What the new case is about:
COULD THIS CASE OVERTURN ROE V. WADE?
What the state of Mississippi, on appeal after losing in the lower courts, is asking is to be allowed to ban most abortions beginning in 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 their previous rulings on abortion.
Here’s why: If the court decides to uphold Mississippi’s law, it would be its first ratification of an abortion ban before the point of viability — the stage in pregnancy at which a fetus can survive outside the womb.
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, which can be as early as six weeks into pregnancy.
WHAT HAPPENS IF MISSISSIPPI WINS?
If Mississippi wins, it gets to enforce its 15-week ban, which lower courts so far have prohibited.
Beyond Mississippi, other politically conservative states certainly would look to copy that state’s law.
A decision that states can limit pre-viability abortions also would embolden other states to enact more restrictions. Some have done that and already are wrapped up in their own court challenges.
But the immediate impact of a win for Mississippi could be limited. That’s because more than 90% of abortions are done in the first 13 weeks of pregnancy, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
IS THERE A LIKELY OUTCOME?
Mississippi would seem to have the upper hand because:
- The justices agreed to hear the case in the first place.
- The makeup of the court is more conservative after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in September and her replacement by Justice Amy Coney Barrett. Conservatives hold six of the court’s nine seats.
Barrett, one of former President Donald Trump’s three Supreme Court appointees, is the most open opponent of abortion rights to join the court in decades.
The two other justices Trump appointed — Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh — voted, in dissent, last year to allow Louisiana to enforce restrictions on doctors that could have closed two of the state’s three abortion clinics.
Justice Samuel Alito also is seen as likely to vote for Mississippi. And Justice Clarence Thomas is on record in support of overturning Roe v. Wade.
WHEN WILL A DECISON COME?
The court has finished its calendar of scheduled oral arguments for now and is issuing decisions before taking a break for the summer.
It will resume hearing arguments in October, and this case will probably be argued in the fall. A decision would likely come in the spring of 2022 — during the campaign for congressional midterm elections.
WHERE DO AMERICANS STAND ON ABORTION?
An April poll by the Pew Research Center found that 59% of Americans think abortion should be legal in most or all cases — and that 39% think it should be illegal in most or all cases.
Eighty percent of Democrats said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, compared with 35% of Republicans.