The Supreme Court on Friday abolished the national right to choose abortion, overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized the procedure nationwide.
Without Roe’s protections to stop states from utterly banning abortion, 26 states are expected to outlaw the procedure. Millions of people will be unable to end their pregnancies in their home state and, likely, forced to have children who they may not want, cannot afford to care for, or may have devastating health problems.
This decision, one of the most consequential in Supreme Court history, will undoubtedly disproportionately impact the lives of women, poor people, and people of color.
“We therefore hold that the Constitution does not confer a right to abortion. Roe and Casey must be overruled, and the authority to regulate abortion must be returned to the people and their elected representatives,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the opinion for the court, referring to Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the 1992 Supreme Court decision that reaffirmed the right to abortion.
Alito was joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett. Chief Justice John Roberts filed a separate opinion that concurred in the judgement of the case. Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan—who make up the liberal wing of the court—all wrote a joint dissent.
The decision is far from surprising, since a draft Supreme Court decision overturning Roe leaked in May. Overturning Roe has been the anti-abortion movement’s north star for nearly half a century. Grassroots activists in the powerful movement has spent the last decade hacking away at state-level abortion rights, leaving the procedure inaccessible to many in red states. Conservatives in Washington, D.C., meanwhile, created a pipeline for anti-abortion jurists to ascend to the highest courts in the nation. Abortion opponents hoped that, through this coordinated campaign, abortion providers would be forced to challenge anti-abortion legislation in court and create cases that could one day land in front of a Supreme Court stacked with anti-abortion justices—which is exactly what happened this term.
In 2018, Mississippi passed a law to ban abortion at 15 weeks of pregnancy, which flew in the face of Roe. The last abortion clinic left in Mississippi challenged the law, halting it from taking effect. Then, the case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Center, climbed through the court system until the Supreme Court heard arguments in December.
Former President Donald Trump promised to appoint anti-abortion justices to the Supreme Court; all three of his picks—Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett—all agreed to overturn Roe.
In anticipation of the landmark ruling’s demise, 13 states have passed so-called “trigger bans,” which outlaw abortion more or less automatically as soon as Roe is overturned, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks abortion rights. Seven states also retain abortion bans on the books from the days before Roe, which could be once again resurrected and used to limit abortion access.
Texas and Oklahoma recently enacted laws that, respectively, ban abortion as early as six weeks into pregnancy and at fertilization. (Although these laws defied Roe, courts have let them play out.) These laws effectively vaporized abortion access in each state, providing a snapshot of what a Roe-less United States may look like, as wouldbe patients fled to abortion-friendly states at increasing risk and cost.
In their dissent, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan made this cost plain.
This decision, they wrote, “says that from the very moment of fertilization, a woman has no rights to speak of. A state can force her to bring a pregnancy to term, even at the steepest personal and familial costs. An abortion restriction, the majority holds, is permissible whenever rational, the lowest level of scrutiny known to the law.”
“Some states have enacted laws extending to all forms of abortion procedure, including taking medication in one’s own home,” they continued. “They have passed laws without any exceptions for when the woman is the victim of rape or incest. Under those laws, a woman will have to bear her rapist’s child or a young girl her father’s—no matter if doing so will destroy her life.”
Research also indicates that forcing people to carry unwanted pregnancies to term radically alters their lives. More than a decade ago, the University of California, San Francisco started examining women who sought abortions in groundbreaking research known as the Turnaway Study. The study, which followed how the lives of women who were able to get abortions differed from those who were turned away from abortion clinics, found that women who were denied a wanted abortion and carried a pregnancy to term were four times as likely to end up living below the federal poverty level. Researchers also found that these women were more likely to stay connected to abusive partners, more likely to have serious pregnancy complications and poor physical health, and less likely to have “aspirational life plans” for the coming year.
Among women who were able to get an abortion, 95 percent told researchers five years later that it had been the right decision for them.
Despite the ruling on Roe on Friday, abortion rights remain broadly popular. People’s opinions on exactly how and when abortion should be allowed can sometimes be contradictory, likely thanks in part to a general lack of literacy around abortion science, law, and politics. But people in the United States tend to want abortion to be legal in at least some circumstances: In a poll conducted by Gallup after the May leak, 55 percent of Americans identified as “pro-choice”—the highest percentage in decades. Just 39 percent of Americans said they were “pro-life,” the lowest level since the mid-1990s. In fact, since 1989, Gallup has consistently found that more than half of Americans want to preserve Roe.
When it comes to the voting booth, however, people who support abortion rights rarely see them as a priority. And Democrats in Congress have repeatedly failed to codify national abortion rights, including as recently as May. Even in press releases, the Biden administration rarely uses the word “abortion.”
But a poll released earlier this month by Gallup found that, in this year’s midterms, abortion rights may become a more important issue. Among registered voters, 27 percent say that they will only vote for a candidate who shares their view on abortion—the highest percentage ever recorded by the prestigious polling group. Democrats looking to hold onto control of Congress may be particularly interested in the fact that 38 percent of liberals told Gallup they would only vote for a candidate with their views on abortion, compared to just 24 percent of conservatives who say the same.
Now, experts warn that hat happened to Roe could easily happen to other hard-won rights, including the right to contraception and the rights to same-sex marriage and intimacy. Thomas, one of the most hardline conservatives on the court, made his interest in reevaluating those rights clear:
“In future cases, we should reconsider all of this Court’s substantive due process precedents, including Griswold, Lawrence, and Obergefell,” he wrote, referring, respectively, to cases that granted married couples the right to contraception and paved the way for widespread contraception access, that abolished homophobic sodomy laws, and established the national right to same-sex marriage.
“The right Roe and Casey recognized does not stand alone,” the liberal justices warned in their dissent. “To the contrary, the Court has linked it for decades to other settled freedoms involving bodily integrity, familial relationships, and procreation,” they wrote. “They are all part of the same constitutional fabric, protecting autonomous decision making over the most personal of life decisions.”