Here’s what is at stake in the Mississippi Roe v. Wade case

Today, the Supreme Court started hearing the most important abortion case that’s gone before it in a generation. The justices are considering Mississippi’s request to overturn Roe v. Wade in order to uphold a law the state passed barring abortions after 15 weeks. If Mississippi’s law is allowed to stand, it will effectively erase Roe‘s decision establishing that women have a constitutional right to end a pregnancy.

So what is Mississippi’s argument for ending Roe?

The state of course is marshaling multiple arguments, in addition to amicus briefs filed by dozens of supporting groups (National Right to Life Committee, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the conservative-leaning Association of American Physicians & Surgeons). The theme, insofar as there is one, is that Roe is outdated. For instance, this side argues scientific advances have helped doctors to better understand fetal pain and fetuses to survive outside the womb at much younger ages.

The most novel legal argument, however, is that women don’t need the right to an abortion anymore, in the year 2021, because it’s gotten easier for them to balance work and family. Mississippi argues in its brief to the court that Roe-era circa 1973 beliefs about women’s lives had been destroyed by “the march of progress.” Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch put it this way in her statement: “In these last 50 years, women have carved their own ways to achieving a better balance for success in their professional and personal lives.”

When is a decision expected?

By next summer.

What happens if the Supreme Court rules in Mississippi’s favor?

Mississippi says that Roe (and subsequent decisions, like 1992’s Planned Parenthood v. Casey) undemocratically pried away states’ ability to determine their own abortion laws—that is, took away their right to choose. Some may find that ironic, but the position is abortion laws should be “given back to the states.” If the Supreme Court rules for Mississippi, not only will it get to keep its ban after 15 weeks, but each state would also again become the arbiter of its own abortion laws.

Any idea which direction the court is leaning?

The fact that the justices agreed to hear an abortion case concerning a state law that bans the procedure after 15 weeks—well before viability, the current time limit at around 24 weeks—suggests the majority-conservative court is planning to at least rethink Roe in some way, or perhaps even reverse it altogether. This possibility seems supported by the Supreme Court separately agreeing to rule on whether Texas’s abortion ban after six weeks should stay on the books. The court could have blocked the Texas law three months ago, but chose not to.

What would be the effects of overturning Roe?

Mississippi’s case falls smack in the middle of a moment when red states are passing new laws that restrict abortions more aggressively. Last month, the Guttmacher Institute noted that 2021 marks the first time the U.S. has enacted more than 100 restrictions in a single year. The Center for Reproductive Rights, which is arguing against Mississippi in this case, says that annually about 60,000 Americans get abortions after the Mississippi law’s 15-week cutoff; the group notes if Roe were overturned, almost half of the states have already made it clear that they would fully ban abortion. Nine have bans passed before Roe that would kick back in, 12 states have “trigger” bans that automatically go into effect the moment Roe gets overturned, and the remaining states have legislatures that oppose Roe.

Axios released an excellent graphic this morning mapping out what this post-Roe America would actually look like, in real-world terms, for a person trying to locate their closest abortion provider. As it notes, the average American would need to drive around 125 miles, versus about 25 currently.

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