By Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States Supreme Court on Wednesday began hearing arguments in a case over whether to remove abortion rights in America as it assesses Mississippi’s attempt to overturn the ruling history Roe v. Wade of 1973 which legalized the procedure nationwide.
The court, which has a Conservative 6-3 majority, hears at least 70 minutes of oral arguments in the southern state’s appeal to reactivate its ban on abortion from 15 weeks pregnant. The lower courts blocked the law supported by the Republicans.
The Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Mississippi’s only abortion clinic, has challenged the law and has the backing of the administration of Democratic President Joe Biden. A decision is expected by the end of June.
Hundreds of protesters from both sides of the abortion debate gathered outside the neoclassical white marble courthouse ahead of the arguments. Anti-abortion protesters held huge signs reading “abortion is murder”, some bearing Christian crosses. Abortion rights activists chanted “what do we want? Access to abortion. When do we want it? Now”.
Roe v. Wade acknowledged that the right to privacy under the United States Constitution protects a woman’s ability to terminate her pregnancy. The Supreme Court, in a 1992 decision entitled Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, reaffirmed abortion rights and outlawed laws imposing “excessive demands” on access to abortion.
Anti-abortion activists believe they are closer than ever to toppling Roe, a long-standing goal for Christian conservatives.
Mississippi is one of a series of restrictive abortion laws passed in Republican states in recent years. On November 1, the Supreme Court heard arguments regarding a Texas law banning abortion at around six weeks pregnant, but has yet to render a decision.
The Roe and Casey decisions determined that states cannot ban abortion until a fetus is viable outside the womb, typically considered by doctors to be between 24 and 28 weeks.
Mississippi’s 15-week ban directly challenged this conclusion. Even if the court doesn’t explicitly overturn Roe, any ruling allowing states to ban abortion prior to fetal viability outside the womb would raise questions about how early states might ban the procedure. In the 1992 Casey decision, the court said Roe’s “central position” was that sustainability was the first point at which states could ban abortion.
While urging the court to overturn Roe, Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch, a Republican, said judges could enforce his law by ruling that a 15-week ban does not impose an undue burden. Such a ruling would erase the standard of viability adopted in the Roe and Casey decisions, meaning judges would have to determine where to draw the line.
Abortion rights advocates have said such a move would gut Roe out, making it easier for conservative states to impose sweeping restrictions on abortion.
Mississippi is one of 12 states with so-called trigger laws designed to ban abortion if Roe v. Wade is canceled. Other states would also likely act quickly to restrict access to abortion.
If Roe were canceled or limited, large swathes of America could return to a time when women wishing to terminate pregnancies would be faced with the choice of having a potentially dangerous illegal abortion, traveling long distances to a state where the procedure remains legal and available or buy abortion pills online. The procedure would remain legal in liberal-leaning states, 15 of which have laws protecting abortion rights.
Abortion remains a controversial issue in the United States, as in many countries. In a June Reuters / Ipsos poll, 52% of American adults said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 36% said it should be illegal in most or all cases .
Wednesday’s arguments could provide insight into whether there are the five votes needed among the six Tory justices to overthrow Roe.
Former Republican President Donald Trump, who promised in 2016 to appoint judges who would overthrow Roe, has appointed three of the nine members of the Supreme Court. Her third appointee, Amy Coney Barrett, replaced the late Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, an abortion rights advocate, last year. Barrett, known for his anti-abortion stance before becoming a judge, has yet to participate in a major abortion decision.
Other Trump appointees, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, dissented in the court’s 2020 5-4 decision overturning Louisiana’s law placing restrictions on doctors performing abortions.
After the Jackson Clinic sued to block Mississippi law, a 2018 federal judge ruled against the state, citing Roe. The New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Court of Appeals in 2019 came to the same conclusion.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung; Additional reporting by Gabriella Borter, Jan Wolfe and Julia Harte; Editing by Will Dunham)
Copyright 2021 Thomson Reuters.