Why the Mississippi abortion rights case is so important

·5 min read

The pivotal Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization could lead to weakening or overturning the landmark Roe v Wade


On 1 December, the US supreme court is set to hear oral arguments in what has been called the most important abortion rights case in almost half a century – a case that could redefine reproductive rights across the country and have repercussions abroad for generations.

Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization could lead to weakening or overturning the landmark 1973 supreme court ruling, Roe v Wade, which effectively legalized abortion in the US. If that were to happen, tens of millions people of reproductive age across the country would be affected.

Related: Oral arguments in pivotal Mississippi abortion case begin at supreme court

On Wednesday, the court’s nine justices are expected to hear from the state of Mississippi, which has argued that the court should use the case to overturn Roe, and from the state’s last abortion clinic, which will argue to preserve abortion rights as they stand.

What is happening at the supreme court?

In Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Dobbs refers to Dr Thomas Dobbs, Mississippi’s health department director, and the official who would enforce the law. Jackson Women’s Health Organization is the last abortion clinic in Mississippi, which is also known as the Pink House.

The highest court in the US will hear from attorneys in the case, which centers on whether Mississippi can outlaw nearly all abortions at and after 15 weeks gestation.

The case directly challenges the precedent in Roe v Wade, which guarantees the right to an abortion in the US.

Roe v Wade protects the right to an abortion up to the point a fetus can survive outside the womb, widely regarded as 24 weeks gestation. A full term pregnancy is 39 weeks gestation.

The nine supreme court justices. Back row, from left, Brett Kavanaugh, Elena Kagan, Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett. Front row, from left, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, John Roberts, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.
The nine supreme court justices. Back row, from left, Brett Kavanaugh, Elena Kagan, Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett. Front row, from left, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, John Roberts, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor. Photograph: Erin Schaff/AFP/Getty Images

The court is now dominated by conservatives, with six of the nine justices leaning to the right. Abortion advocates see the Mississippi case as especially perilous for abortion rights because justices could have dismissed Mississippi’s law as unconstitutional under Roe. However, the court chose to take the case, indicating at least four justices see a reason to revisit the historic ruling. A decision is expected in June 2022, but the hearing on 1 December could provide clues as to the justices’ thinking.

What could happen to Roe v Wade?

Congress never enshrined the right to terminate a pregnancy in law. Instead, pregnant people in the US have relied on Roe v Wade for almost 50 years, and the precedent is now considered to be under threat.

The justices could decide to dismiss the Mississippi case, upholding Roe v Wade. However, abortion advocates worry that the court could instead rule in a way that may weaken or even overturn it.

The justices could decide that the 15-week law does not put a significant burden on people in Mississippi, and issue a ruling that would allow abortion to be banned at a much earlier stage of pregnancy. This is would considerably restrict abortion access and weaken Roe v Wade.

If Roe is overturned, 26 states are expected to move to outlaw abortion in various ways, through state constitutional amendments, “trigger” laws which go into effect as soon as possible should Roe be overturned, or limits on abortion beginning at six weeks gestation, before most know they are pregnant.

A man holds a sign supporting Roe v Wade in front of the supreme court building in Washington DC on 30 November.
A man holds a sign supporting Roe v Wade in front of the supreme court building in Washington DC on 30 November. Photograph: Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images

Nearly all of these 26 states are in the midwest and south. Together, states considered to be hostile to abortion are home to 58% of women of reproductive age, or 40 million of the 72 million women between 15 and 49 years of age.

In just one example, Louisiana has a “trigger law” that will immediately outlaw abortion if Roe v Wade is overturned. Today, if a pregnant person in Louisiana wanted a safe legal abortion, they would drive 37 miles on average. However, if Roe v Wade were overturned, that distance would increase by 1,720% to 630 miles on average, because a person seeking an abortion in Louisiana would likely need to travel to Illinois, the closest state which affirms a right to abortion, to obtain one.

Abortion advocates have warned that if Roe v Wade falls, the procedure could become both inaccessible and a criminal offense. Criminal justice experts have said abortion bans could lead to a wave of prosecutions under murder statutes and mass incarceration.

Abortion advocates argue that the procedure would also still continue, but would no longer be safely performed in a legal, clinical setting, putting the health of pregnant people at significant risk.

Abortion bans would also likely compound the ways the US already fails many pregnant people, namely by increasing the maternal mortality rate, which is already the highest among wealthy nations.

Abortion activists clash during the 2018 March for Life in front of the supreme court in Washington DC.
Abortion activists clash during the 2018 March for Life in front of the supreme court in Washington DC. Photograph: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Would overturning Roe v Wade make the US an outlier in abortion rights?

In recent decades, there has been a longstanding trend toward liberalizing abortion laws in countries across the world. Since 1994, at least 50 countries have liberalized abortion laws, and now 970 million women or 59% of the world’s reproductive aged female population lives in a country where abortion is broadly legal and available.

Most recently, there has also been movement to liberalize laws in Latin America, a region known for extremely punitive abortion bans.

International law considers abortion rights to be human rights. The UN Rapporteur for the Right to Health, Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng, told the Guardian if the US allows states to ban abortion it would immediately violate international human rights law, including the convention against torture, to which the US is a party.

“If that gets overturned,” said Mofokeng of Roe v Wade, “it has catastrophic implications, not just for the US.”

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