The United States Supreme Court recently granted certiorari on the case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. It will address a Mississippi law that was passed that banned abortions after the 15th week of pregnancy except in cases of health emergencies or fetal abnormalities. The federal district court invalidated the law shortly after enactment and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the district court’s decision. It maintained that the state had an interest in regulating abortion prior to viability in adherence to the undue burden standard, but a full ban on abortions was not permitted. The Supreme Court will address if the ruling remains intact or if there will be a new standard that will be applied to state abortion regulations moving forward. For any meaningful reform, the Supreme Court will need to address the prevailing undue burden standard articulated in Planned Parenthood v. Casey that assesses the timing of the state’s interests in regulating abortion.
In Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruled a woman has a right to an abortion, thus overturning state laws that prohibited the practice entirely and state laws that had prohibited the practice with exceptions for cases of rape and the life of the woman. The Supreme Court relied on the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as the basis for its reasoning with an emphasis on maintaining the broader right to privacy that was generated in Griswold v. Connecticut. Per the Roe court, a woman had bodily autonomy to decide whether or not to undergo an abortion. The Court also instituted a framework of when the state would have a valid interest in regulating the fetus. The framework was as follows: in the first trimester, the state could not regulate abortions; in the second trimester, the state could reasonably regulate with regards to maternal health and in the third trimester, abortions could be banned by the state except in cases that consider the life and health of the mother.
The last major case that presented a strong challenge to the right to abortion was Planned Parenthood v. Casey. This matter was decided in 1992. This case upheld Roe v. Wade and the constitutional right to abortion. It is well-known for altering the Roe standard by providing that the state can regulate abortions from the point of fetal viability and subsequent as long as an undue burden is not imposed on the woman. The trimester framework from Roe would no longer apply moving forward.
With Justice Amy Barrett on the U.S. Supreme Court, there is now an opportunity to revisit the extent of abortion rights. Justice Clarence Thomas has written in prior opinions about his intent that the Court should re-examine the Roe precedent. As medical science has progressed, even those not holding a persuasive faith tradition should consider the activity of the fetus in the womb. If the Supreme Court decided to allow further opportunities for the state to regulate abortion, it could begin the process of making productive reforms and move towards restoring it to its pre-Roe status as a primarily state regulated practice.
It is plausible to consider that the question of abortion itself should never have been a matter considered by the U.S. Supreme Court. Much of the issues that are common concerns for the pro-choice movement such as in cases of rape and the health of the mother were addressed in state laws prior to Roe. While one could argue that abortion itself should not be recognized in any form per the laws of this nation as it denies personhood and the existence of a separate biological life distinct in DNA, several states did take the middle ground with carving exceptions. In either path, democracy was permitted to resolve the issue and the degree of divisiveness, willful ignorance and misinformation was not as dominating as today. This issue defines Supreme Court nomination hearings, fundraising efforts of politicians and it has also become very corporatized when campaign donations and profits generated from samples for scientific testing are also considered. It has forever tarnished our institutions and has permitted the government to draw itself into conflict with religious conscience rights.
With the current trajectory of the Supreme Court, however, it is doubtful that the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization opinion will be wide-ranging and broad. The Roberts court, while having a few landmark decisions, has tended to approach controversial issues with an incremental approach. There are also difficulties posed in the present political climate as court packing demands by the radical left have resounded.
Overall, it is possible that the Supreme Court will uphold the Mississippi law, but carefully narrow it so as to not generate further controversy with a broader approach. A decision reforming the timeframe and degree of the state interest in life based on the new developments in science, however, would be welcome progress with the potential to further expand into the future as heartbeat bill litigation starts to appear in courts. We will continue to monitor this litigation in the coming year with oral arguments in Dobbs set to begin in October and likely a full decision rendered by the Supreme Court in June 2022.