Roe v. Wade's future is in doubt after historic arguments at Supreme Court

Abortion rights advocates and abortion rights opponents demonstrate in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021, in Washington, as the court hears arguments in a case from Mississippi, where a 2018 law would ban abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, well before viability.
Abortion rights advocates and abortion rights opponents demonstrate in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday in Washington, as the court hears arguments in a case from Mississippi, where a 2018 law would ban abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, well before viability.
Andrew Harnik | AP Photo

Updated: 3:19 p.m.

The right to an abortion in the United States appeared to be on shaky ground as a divided Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday on the fate of Roe v. Wade, the court's 1973 decision that legalized abortion in the United States.

At issue in Wednesday's case — Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization — was a Mississippi law that bans abortion after 15 weeks. Until now, all the court's abortion decisions have upheld Roe's central framework — that women have a constitutional right to an abortion in the first two trimesters of pregnancy, when a fetus is unable to survive outside the womb, roughly between 22 and 24 weeks. But Mississippi asked the Supreme Court to reverse all of its prior abortion decisions and to return the abortion question to the states.

The court's three newest justices, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, appeared to signal they are ready to side with Mississippi — but it wasn't immediately clear if all of them would strike down Roe, as the state of Mississippi had asked.

Summarizing Mississippi's argument, Justice Kavanaugh said: "They say the Constitution doesn't give us the authority, we should leave it to the states and we should be scrupulously neutral."

Chief Justice John Roberts, a fellow conservative, focused on the argument of fetal viability.

"Why would 15 weeks be an inappropriate line? Viability, it seems to me, doesn't have anything to do with choice, but if it really is an issue about choice, why is 15 weeks not enough time?" he asked Julie Rikelman, who represented the abortion clinic bringing the case.

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Rikelman replied: "If the court were to move the line substantially backwards and 15 weeks is 9 weeks before viability, your honor, it may need to reconsider the rules around regulations because if it's cutting the time period to obtain an abortion roughly in half, then those barriers are going to be much more important."

The court's liberals suggested overturning Roe would make the court appear political.

"Will this institution survive the stench that this creates in the public perception that the constitution and its reading are just political acts?" Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked Mississippi Solicitor General Scott Stewart.

A decision in the case is expected by summer.

Minnesota groups on the future of abortion rights in the state

Groups that support or oppose abortion rights in Minnesota also closely watched Wednesday’s Supreme Court oral arguments.

A ruling overturning Roe v. Wade would not have immediate impacts in Minnesota, where a 1995 state Supreme Court ruling established a constitution right to abortion. But if Roe is overturned, 26 states are poised to ban or severely limit abortion.

“Most observers of the hearing this morning do not see a positive end for women in this country either way," said Sarah Stoesz, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood North Central States.

Another Minnesota group against abortion rights called the Supreme Court debate Wednesday “hugely significant."

“[States] would be able to protect the human rights of all human beings, including unborn children and their mothers. And we think that states should be able to do that,” said Paul Stark with the Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life.

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