A U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Friday that held there is no constitutional right to an abortion generated a tsunami of emotion across the United States. Religious conservatives celebrated the attainment of a long-held goal while abortion-rights advocates warned that millions of American women will now face daunting obstacles to receiving what many consider a basic health care service.
Demonstrators outside the Supreme Court cheered, booed, and wept as Americans across the country began to prepare for a future in which a woman’s right to abort a pregnancy — protected for nearly 50 years by the court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade — will be eliminated or sharply curtailed in more than half of the 50 states.
In more than a dozen states, restrictions on abortion were expected to take effect almost immediately due either to “trigger laws” meant to come into effect with the overturning of Roe, or laws already on the books that were not enforced because of the protections Roe afforded.
In all, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a women’s health research organization, eventually 26 states are “certain or likely to ban abortion to the fullest extent possible.”
In some states this will include measures banning abortion with no exception for rape or incest, bringing criminal prosecutions against medical professionals who perform abortions, and bringing criminal prosecutions against women who have abortions.
“It's truly an atrocity,” said Heather Shumaker, director of state abortion access at the National Women's Law Center. “We are yet to see the chaos that's going to be unleashed in this country from this decision.”
“Every day women are seeking abortion care,” she told VOA. “They need help from their families and their friends and their trusted partners and providers to get that care. And the court has essentially put all of that into jeopardy with this decision. Clinics are going to be closing. Those who help people get abortions could be threatened with lawsuits, people are going to be increasingly criminalized and policed. … I don't think that the country truly knows what to expect yet.”
By contrast Steven Aden, general counsel for Americans United for Life, told VOA that he experienced “euphoria” when the decision was announced, and called on abortion rights supporters to accept the ruling.
“The pro-life movement extends its hand across the aisle, to those on the pro-abortion side, and we call on them to recognize what abortion really is and does to women and to life in the womb so that we can forge a new America, one that's not divided over the right to kill children in the womb,” he said.
Patchwork of laws
By making the federal government silent on the question of abortion and throwing the issue to the states, the ruling guarantees a patchwork of abortion laws across the country. The procedure is expected to remain broadly available in the Northeast, on the Pacific Coast, and in some states in the interior of the country, including Illinois, Colorado and New Mexico.
In areas of the Deep South and Midwest, however, there will be little or no access to abortion services. Women seeking care could face journeys of hundreds of miles — which virtually guarantees that many will carry unwanted pregnancies to term. This will be particularly true for women without significant financial resources and support networks, a population in which minority groups are disproportionately represented, according to the U.S. Census.
There will also be variations among states in the way abortion laws are enforced. In some cases, it will be the job of law enforcement agencies to bring charges against people found to be in violation of the law.
In other states, including Texas and Oklahoma, enforcement is delegated to private citizens. Those states have given individual citizens the right to sue people involved in an abortion procedure that is against the law. This tactic was originally devised when Roe remained in force, because it made it difficult or impossible to challenge the legislation in federal court.
Warnings of negative consequences
Professor Tracey A. Weitz, an American University sociologist, told VOA that research has clearly established that women who want an abortion but are unable to get one experience a wide range of negative outcomes in the next five years.
“Those women were more likely to have poor economic consequences, more bankruptcies, more evictions, more financial problems,” she said. “The children that they had, and the children they already had, are more likely to suffer economic and social consequences. People were more likely to stay in relationships with violent partners, and they were more likely to suffer health consequences and, in some cases, death.”
Weitz said that these problems will hit the poorest Americans the hardest.
Wealthier American will be able to travel to access abortion services, she said.
“The people who will be left having the children that they did not anticipate and know that they cannot care for will be people who already suffer from the structures of oppression,” she said. “They're more likely to be people of color and more likely to be low income.”
Anti-abortion ‘safety net’
Even as they celebrated the ruling, some anti-abortion organizations acknowledged that by restricting abortion rights, states would create a heightened need for services among women who carry unwanted pregnancies to term.
“Over the next few years we will have the opportunity to save hundreds of thousands, even millions of lives by limiting the horror of abortion in many states,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, in a prepared statement. “In this mission of justice and mercy, we redouble our commitment to women and families.”
Dannenfelser called for the expansion of a “pro-life safety net” for pregnant women and their families.
Republicans supportive of ruling
“The Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Dobbs is courageous and correct,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, said in a statement. “This is an historic victory for the Constitution and for the most vulnerable in our society.
“Millions of Americans have spent half a century praying, marching, and working toward today’s historic victories for the rule of law and for innocent life,” he added. “I have been proud to stand with them throughout our long journey and I share their joy today.”
House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy called the decision “the most important pro-life ruling in American history.”
He added, “The right to life has been vindicated. The voiceless will finally have a voice. This great nation can now live up to its core principle that all are created equal — not born equal — created.”
Democrats decry it
President Joe Biden on Friday called the court’s ruling the “realization of an extreme ideology and a tragic error.” He noted that it is the first time the court has acted to take away a constitutionally protected right.
Biden said the federal right to an abortion could be restored legislatively, but acknowledged that in a closely divided Congress in which Democrats broadly support abortion rights and Republican broadly do not, a law codifying the protections of Roe was unlikely to pass. He called on supporters of abortion access to vote with the issue of abortion access in mind in November’s midterm elections.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, offered a similar call to voters.
“A woman’s fundamental health decisions are her own to make, in consultation with her doctor and her loved ones — not to be dictated by far-right politicians,” Pelosi said in a statement. “While Republicans seek to punish and control women, Democrats will keep fighting ferociously to enshrine Roe v. Wade into law.”
Calling the ruling “cruel … outrageous and heart-wrenching,” she added, “But make no mistake: the rights of women and all Americans are on the ballot this November.”