The U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) announced it will take on its first major challenge to abortion rights since Trump appointed reactionary Amy Coney Barrett to the high court last year. Coney Barrett’s appointment solidified a 6-3 conservative majority, all-but guaranteeing that the court would take up one of the numerous challenges to Roe v. Wade that the religious right have been shoving through the courts for years.
This case out of Mississippi, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, would ban abortion after 15 weeks, restricting the broader legal access to abortion protected by Roe v. Wade and the 1992 decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. The latter case reaffirmed Roe, and guaranteed the right to an abortion before fetus viability (the point at which the fetus can live outside of the womb, which the court estimated at 23-24 weeks). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 65 percent of legal abortions occur within the first eight weeks of gestation, and 91 percent are performed within the first 13 weeks. Only 1.4 percent occur at or after 21 weeks (CDC, 2014). The Mississippi case poses a direct threat to the pre-viability precedent, and if changed or removed, would mean that states could pass abortion bans much earlier in pregnancies, potentially making the majority of abortions illegal.
How’d We Get Here?
How did we get to this healthcare cliff-edge when a majority of people nationally support maintaining legal access to abortion? For one, there’s been little to no organized resistance from the leadership of reproductive, LGBTQ, or women’s rights organizations like Planned Parenthood, NOW or NARAL. Additionally, the Democratic Party has taken a shamefully defensive approach to attacks on reproductive healthcare.
Even when Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony of assault by Brett Kavanaugh during his Supreme Court appointment hearings injected the #MeToo moment into the highest echelon of the U.S. judicial system, the Democratic leadership refused to mobilize any real resistance. They redirected people’s focus to the 2018 midterms as an excuse not to fight, leaving the 20 million people who watched the Kavanugh hearings with no way to meaningfully fight back. If a sufficient movement had been built to block the appointment of anti-abortion, anti-worker, alleged rapist Brett Kavanaugh, this could have been the basis for a real victory in the #MeToo moment.
The conservative right boldly pushed for Amy Coney Barrett’s appointment when Justice Ginsberg’s death produced a vacancy on the Supreme Court. And for the third time, the Democrats spectated on Trump’s bigoted, anti-worker, anti-woman appointments. Instead of fighting to represent the more than 600,000 women and trans people accessing safe, legal abortions, let alone the fight for Medicare for All or labor rights, Democrats grumbled about the process. They intentionally avoided confrontations about Coney Barrett’s religious zealotry and her previous statements against abortion.
Now, expectations about what can be achieved are raised with a narrow Democratic majority in Congress. President Biden has pulled together a Supreme Court commission tasked to consider, among other proposals, whether to expand the court to dilute the conservative majority. Biden also issued a statement committing to codify Roe, meaning he would push Congress to pass a federal law guaranteeing the right to abortion, regardless of the SCOTUS ruling. That Biden issued his recent draft budget without a whisper of perhaps his most repeated campaign promise to forgive some student debt should be a warning against the boldness of proposals originating from the Democratic leadership. Nothing short of an organized, mass resistance in the streets can stop the immediate threat to Roe v. Wade.
The Map for Abortion Access
Roe v. Wade has been on the books since 1973 and the Supreme Court has frequently ruled against provisions that pose an “undue burden” to access. For example, last summer, the Supreme Court struck down a restrictive Louisiana abortion law that would require hospital admitting privileges for any clinic performing abortion by a 5-to-4 margin. Now with Coney Barrett on the court, the threats have escalated. A decision in Dobbs — expected in spring 2022 — is unlikely to overturn Roe outright by ruling that women aren’t guaranteed access to abortions before fetus viability.
But what a SCOTUS ruling on Dobbs could do is kick the decision for abortion laws back to the states by determining that some bans on abortion before 23-24 weeks can be allowed. This would open the floodgates to Republican legislatures to test the ruling and restrict abortion earlier and earlier in pregnancies (as early as six weeks in a law just passed in Texas). According to the New York Times, allowing states to decide could increase the distance to the nearest abortion clinic from 35 to over 200 miles for millions of women. Women who can’t afford to take time off work or pay for childcare are increasingly impacted.
Republican majority legislatures in approximately 22 states have passed various “trigger laws” that would make abortion illegal immediately, or soon after, if Roe is ever overturned outright.
Defend Roe v. Wade and Reproductive Rights!
Attempts to restrict abortion aren’t new, and have been a line of attack for years. 2020 was one of the most challenging years in modern history to be a parent and a mother. When schools and childcare centers shut down at the beginning of the pandemic, the New York Times reports that “5.1 million American mothers stopped working for pay. Today, 1.3 million of them remain out of work.” Fighting for the right to legal, safe, and accessible abortion must not be separated from the fight for a healthy society.
This means fighting for free childcare, a living wage, a Medicare for All universal healthcare system and much more. Building a mass movement, we can defeat these reactionary laws as a part of a fight for trans-inclusive, reproductive healthcare for women and LGBTQ people. When will the Democratic leadership, and their connected organizations like NOW, NARAL, Planned Parenthood, decide to wage a real fight for women’s rights? We cannot wait. We need our own, working-class party, prepared to fight for this program, and a world where women genuinely have the right to raise a family, when and how they decide to, or not.