The Supreme Court is hearing a case today that could lead to abortion bans in 26 states

May 21, 2019: Pro-choice activists protest on the steps of the Supreme Court after states sought to pass restrictive "heart beat" abortion laws.
May 21, 2019: Pro-choice activists protest on the steps of the Supreme Court after states sought to pass restrictive "heart beat" abortion laws. Photo: Shutterstock

Today, Supreme Court oral arguments began in the most significant reproductive rights case since Roe v. Wade, a case that has the potential to overturn the landmark decision that legalized abortion at the federal level.

Here’s what you need to know.

Related: Biden’s World AIDS Day proclamation mentions LGBTQ people in break from Trump

The Case

Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization addresses a Mississippi law that bans abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

Right now, Roe v. Wade, along with the follow up case Planned Parenthood v. Casey, grants all pregnant people the right to an abortion before fetal viability, meaning when the fetus is able to survive outside the womb, around 23 weeks.

The state of Mississippi is not only arguing in favor of its 15-week ban, but also that the court should overturn Roe v. Wade completely and allow the states to pass whatever laws they want regarding abortion.

The Consequences

If Roe v. Wade is overturned, 26 states are likely to impose abortion bans that either begin at conception, 15 weeks, or 20 weeks gestation, according to a report by the Guttmacher Institute. 

Even more, 12 states currently have “trigger” laws in place, meaning abortion bans will automatically take effect if Roe v. Wade is overturned, reported Politico.

People who need abortions in these states would thus be forced to travel hundreds of miles to obtain an abortion.

“It’s a well-known fact that restrictions don’t stop people from needing abortion,” said Guttmacher Institute President and CEO Dr. Herminia Palacio. “Instead, they push care out of reach for many people by making abortion more expensive and logistically challenging to get. If Roe v. Wade is overturned, people seeking abortion will have to travel significantly farther to get care.”

“Worse, states that are likely to ban abortion are clustered together, especially in the South and Midwest, and people might have to cross multiple state lines to reach the nearest provider.”

Palacio also acknowledged that LGBTQ people, low-income people, people of color, young people, and those who live in rural communities are most affected by abortion bans.

Those without the resources to travel to an out-of-state clinic could also be forced to carry their pregnancy to term – and those desperate enough are at risk of turning to dangerous at-home abortions.

The justices could also vote to uphold Mississippi’s 15-week cut-off rather than fully overturning Roe v. Wade. In this scenario, many conservative states are still likely to pass new restrictions based off of the Mississippi law.

In fact, 2021 has already seen a record of over 100 abortion restrictions passed by states, including an especially severe ban in Texas that prohibits abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, a time when most people don’t even know they are pregnant yet.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments against the Texas law on November 1 after allowing it to take effect in September. The justices have not moved forward with the case. For now, the law stands.

The Aftermath

Activists on both sides of the debate are scrambling to prepare for the potential of a post-Roe nation.

Groups against abortion have drafted legislation, lobbied lawmakers, and launched door knocking campaigns, while pro-choice groups are doing everything they can to expand resources in states with fewer abortion restrictions.

But doing so isn’t easy.

“Prior to Texas, our system was already taxed,” Colleen McNicholas, chief medical officer of a Planned Parenthood affiliates on the Illinois-Missouri border, told Politico. “We are now on the verge of not being able to uphold it.”

The court is not expected to announce a decision until summer 2022, only a few months before the midterm elections. The decision could make abortion views central to voters’ decisions and have massive effects on election outcomes.

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