In a historic ruling that topples a half-century of legal precedent on reproductive rights, the U.S. Supreme Court on Friday overturned Roe v. Wade, ending the constitutional right to obtain an abortion.
The 5-4 decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, written by Justice Samuel Alito and joined by fellow conservative justices Clarence Thomas, Brett Kavanaugh, Neil Gorsuch, and Amy Coney Barrett, clears the way for states to severely restrict or ban abortion. An analysis by the Guttmacher Institute found that 26 states were certain or likely to ban abortion if the high court overturned Roe v. Wade.
New York is not one of them. In 2019, the state’s Reproductive Health Act was enacted, in a move to protect choice the constitutional right to obtain an abortion ended. The decriminalized abortion, specifically allowing the procedure, and expanded who can perform the procedure.
Shortly after the Supreme Court decision was released, Gov. Kathy Hochul and the state Department of Health announced a multiplatform, paid public education campaign “to ensure New Yorkers—and all Americans—know that in New York State, abortion remains safe, legal, and accessible, always.” The statewide campaign includes a new website, designed to provide a single destination for information about abortion rights, providers, supports, and payment options in New York.
“We feared this dark day—but New York did not hesitate to prepare for it,” Hochul said. “The Supreme Court has dealt a crushing blow to all who value the ability to make decisions about their own bodies. Let me be clear: the Supreme Court has failed us, but New York State will not. Our Abortion Access Always campaign builds on efforts to ensure that everyone knows that abortions remain safe, legal, and accessible here. As long as I am Governor, this State will protect you.”
Rep. Joe Morelle, a fellow Democrat, also sharply criticized the court’s ruling.
“This is a tragic day in America: The Supreme Court has just delivered the most disastrous and terrifying ruling in decades. This formally begins an all-out assault on women’s rights. Today’s decision … will return our nation to a dark and dangerous era where women no longer have control over their own bodies,” he said. “At this very moment, states around the nation are moving to criminalize a woman’s right to make her own health care decisions and her fundamental right to privacy.
“We must turn our anger into action. I remain steadfast in my commitment to protecting women’s healthcare, and I will work tirelessly to protect the essential rights and freedoms all women deserve.”
In May, a measure that would codify abortion protections nationally was passed by the House but died in the Senate, falling nine votes short of the 60 needed to overcome a GOP filibuster.
Today’s decision was widely anticipated, especially after the leaked release in May of Alito’s draft opinion, which struck down Roe v. Wade. Still, it left many legal and political observers scrambling to assess what will occur in its wake.
The case before the court was a challenge to a 2018 Mississippi law that bans abortion—with exceptions for exceptions for medical emergencies and cases involving a “severe fetal abnormality”—after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Lower courts had blocked Mississippi from enforcing the law.
Some had hoped that the court would decide the case more narrowly, upholding Mississippi’s law but leaving Roe v. Wade untouched. In fact, that’s the outcome Chief Justice John Roberts wanted: He agreed with the majority on the Mississippi law but joined the three liberal justices—Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor—in opposing the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.
In his 79-page opinion, Alito acknowledged that abortion “presents a profound moral issue on which Americans hold sharply conflicting views.” But he held that the Constitution neither mentions abortion, nor does it contain implicit protections such as through the due process clause of the 14th Amendment. His rejection of Roe v. Wade was scathing.
“Roe was egregiously wrong from the start. Its reasoning was exceptionally weak, and the decision has had damaging consequences,” he wrote. “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.”
Alito also dismissed the argument that Roe v. Wade ought to be protected by the principle of stare decisis, or adherence to precedents unless a compelling reason to do otherwise exists. Since Roe was decided in 1973, courts have repeatedly upheld the constitutional right to obtain an abortion—most significantly in the 1992 case Planned Parenthood v. Casey.
In a joint dissent, Breyer, Kagan and Sotomayor wrote that the majority opinion says “that from the very moment of fertilization, a woman has no rights to speak of. A State can force her to bring a pregnancy to term, even at the steepest personal and familial costs.”
Added the liberal justices: “As of today, this Court holds, a State can always force a woman to give birth, prohibiting even the earliest abortions. A State can thus transform what, when freely undertaken, is a wonder into what, when forced, may be a nightmare.”
In a concurring opinion, Thomas suggested that the court should use the logic outlined in the Mississippi case to reverse three other decisions establishing rights to contraception, same-sex consensual relations and same-sex marriage. While writing that “these demonstrably erroneous decisions” should be overturned, he left unanswered the question of whether “other constitutional provisions” might protect the “myriad rights that our substantive due process cases have generated.”
Paul Ericson is Rochester Beacon executive editor.
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