Health and Medicine Law and Politics

What the Roe v. Wade decision means to activists on both sides

The 5-4 ruling, handed down on June 24, is a major setback for women’s reproductive rights, some legal scholars say. But anti-abortion activists and some religious groups applauded the historic decision.
supreme court

Anti-abortion and abortion rights activists protest outside the Supreme Court on June 25, a day after the court struck down constitutional protections in place for nearly 50 years in Roe v. Wade. Photo: The Associated Press

One after another, the doors started to close—in some cases, workers taking women out of the waiting room to deliver the news: The Supreme Court had overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, ending a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion that had existed for nearly half a century. 

The impact of the court’s controversial but expected decision, issued early Friday, was swift, as abortion clinics in many parts of the nation immediately shuttered. 

“Due to the Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, we will be suspending all abortion services at Little Rock Family Planning Services (LRFPS) while we assess the continued legality of abortion in Arkansas,” read the message on one clinic’s website. 

The 5-4 decision gives individual states the power to set their own abortion laws, and about half have already indicated they will outlaw the procedure. So-called “trigger laws,” designed to go into effect after a Roe v. Wade reversal, exist in 13 states. Other states have abortion bans that predate Roe. 

A Florida law that will ban abortions after 15 weeks takes effect July 1. 

“This is a stunning blow to the reproductive rights of women,” Caroline Mala Corbin, a constitutional law professor at the University of Miami School of Law, said of Friday’s ruling. “Women no longer have basic autonomy over their own bodies. Women can no longer count on being able to equally participate in their education and professional development because they can’t control their reproduction. There is no silver lining to this ruling.” 

The ruling will also exacerbate existing inequalities, Corbin stressed. “Some states will ban abortion immediately, while other states will protect women’s right to end an unwanted pregnancy. Women who are wealthy enough to take off work and travel might still be able to obtain an abortion, but for many, including women of color, abortions will simply be unobtainable,” she said.  

Friday’s ruling came in a case called Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a challenge to a Mississippi law that forbids most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. 

Justice Samuel Alito wrote the majority opinion, with Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett joining him. 

“Roe was egregiously wrong from the start,” Alito wrote. “Its reasoning was exceptionally weak, and the decision has had damaging consequences. And far from bringing about a national settlement of the abortion issue, Roe and Casey have enflamed debate and deepened division. It is time to heed the Constitution and return the issue of abortion to the people’s elected representatives.” 

In a separate concurring opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that he would have limited the ruling to upholding the Mississippi ban on almost all abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy without taking Roe “all the way down to the studs.” 

The court’s three liberal justices—Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor—dissented, writing, “With sorrow—for this Court, but more, for the many millions of American women who have today lost a fundamental constitutional protection—we dissent.” 

While Friday’s decision was controversial, it was not unforeseen. Nearly two months ago, the news website Politico published a leaked draft majority opinion that revealed the justices had voted to overturn the landmark 1973 case. 

“But there was always the hope against hope that Roberts would convince another justice to significantly cut back on constitutional protection for abortion but not completely eliminate it,” Corbin said. 

Meanwhile, anti-abortion activists and certain religious groups—like some Catholics and many conservative Protestants—applauded the ruling. 

“They are cheering the decision because for these groups, ‘ensoulment’—the moment at which the soul enters the body—begins at the moment of conception,” said David Kling, professor and chair of the Department of Religious Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences. 

“According to their theological thinking, at that moment a human exists. And you cannot kill a human, regardless of how it came to exist, whether by a loving relationship or by rape or incest,” Kling added. “But here’s the corker: 57 percent of U.S. Catholics say abortion is morally wrong, but 68 percent still support Roe v. Wade. Only 14 percent believe that abortion should never be legal. Of course, for orthodox Catholics, the Church is not governed by the majority but by the doctrinal decisions of its leaders.” 

But other religious groups will undoubtedly oppose the massive swing to conservatism now witnessed on the nation’s highest court, Kling said. 

“Some Catholics advocate for abortion,” he stated, noting the Washington, D.C.-based Catholics for Choice abortion rights advocacy group. “Other Christians also say their faith shapes their support for reproductive rights. Protestant clergy and Jewish leaders were instrumental in helping women secure abortions before Roe v. Wade,” Kling noted. “These clergy were motivated by a number of concerns, such as the desperation they saw among women in their congregations, as well as their theological commitments to social justice. Among Protestants, there’s a wide spectrum of opinions on abortion; the most liberal support their constituents to trust women.” 

After the historic decision, the religious right, Kling further explained, will “unquestionably feel more emboldened and will seek to push its agenda—for example, its stand against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and, queer (LGTBQ+) issues—more aggressively.” 

And LGBTQ rights, as well as those legalizing contraception and same-sex marriage, could soon be in peril after Justice Clarence Thomas on Friday called on the Supreme Court to reexamine its decisions in those areas. 

“Unfortunately, the approach the Supreme Court is taking to determine our fundamental rights puts other rights at stake as well,” Corbin pointed out. “According to the Supreme Court, the Constitution does not protect a fundamental right, unless it is deeply rooted in our nation’s history and tradition. So, it would not be difficult for the court to construct an argument that neither contraception nor same-sex marriage is deeply rooted in our history and traditions.” The overturning of Roe v. Wade, she said, provides a road map for eliminating such rights.

Another salient question on the minds of many is what impact, if any, will the ruling have on the November midterm elections? 

“It is likely to energize supporters of reproductive choice to vote, donate, and volunteer in campaigns,” said Gregory Koger, professor and chair of political science. “It will increase voters’ attention to state legislative and gubernatorial elections, since state laws will now determine access to abortion. In comparison, opponents of abortion have had an edge in mobilizing their supporters in past midterm elections, so it is not clear that they are likely to see a similar increase in voter turnout and activism.” 

With Roe v. Wade being overturned, some activists fear a return to the days of back-alley abortions. But Corbin said that is unlikely. 

“Fortunately, advancements in health care mean that women seeking extralegal means to end a pregnancy can do so via medicine rather than sketchy surgeons,” she explained. “So, we will not return to that era. But it doesn’t mean that we will have the security and health care that we deserve.”

—Janette Neuwahl Tannen contributed to this report.