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WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Friday overturned a fundamental right to abortion established nearly 50 years ago in Roe v. Wade, a stunning reversal that could alter the nation's political landscape and leaves states free to drastically reduce or even outlaw a procedure that abortion rights groups said is key to women's equality and independence.
"Roe was egregiously wrong from the start. 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," Justice Samuel Alito wrote. "It is time to heed the Constitution and return the issue of abortion to the people's elected representatives."
The vote was 6 to 3 to uphold a restrictive Mississippi law. Chief Justice John Roberts, though, criticized his conservative colleagues for taking the additional step of overturning the court’s earlier rulings on Roe and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which had reaffirmed the right to abortion.
The decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health was the most anticipated of the court's term, with political tension surrounding the fight over abortion rights erupting in May with the leak of a draft opinion indicating a majority of justices intended to end the long-standing precedent.
Speaking from the White House, President Joe Biden called the decision to overturn Roe a "tragic error" and urged voters to turn out in November to elect lawmakers willing to enact abortion protections.
"This is a sad day for the country in my view, but it doesn't mean the fight is over," he said.
The justices were considering a Mississippi law that would ban almost all abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. The law had not taken effect because lower courts said it was at odds with the national right to abortion established in Roe v. Wade in 1973 and affirmed by subsequent Supreme Court rulings.
The decision was an extraordinary victory for the conservative legal movement, which for decades has made overturning Roe its highest priority and had been frustrated in previous trips to the Supreme Court. The decision came from a court more conservative than the nation has seen in decades, bolstered by three justices nominated by then-President Donald Trump.
It was a worst-case scenario for abortion rights supporters, who had comforted themselves in the past with the notion that while abortion might be restricted, the fundamental right would never be erased. The right will now be decided by state legislatures, as it had until Roe was decided in 1973, and could lead to the procedure being banned in more than half the states.
The decision comes one week after the Iowa Supreme Court reversed a ruling made four years ago by the court, now ordering that there is no right to an abortion under the state constitution — clearing the way for the Republican-controlled Iowa Legislature to enact new restrictions or a ban in the state.
Justice Stephen Breyer, who will be retiring at the end of the term, dissented along with fellow liberals Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
"It says that from the very moment of fertilization, a woman has no rights to speak of," they wrote in a joint dissent. "A State can force her to bring a pregnancy to term, even at the steepest personal and familial costs. An abortion restriction, the majority holds, is permissible whenever rational, the lowest level of scrutiny known to the law."
They added: "Yesterday, the Constitution guaranteed that a woman confronted with an unplanned pregnancy could (within reasonable limits) make her own decision about whether to bear a child, with all the life-transforming consequences that act involve. But no longer. 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."
Alito was joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, and Trump's three nominees, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, who joined the court just 21 months ago, after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the court's most outspoken proponent of abortion rights.
Roberts agreed with upholding the Mississippi law and allowing some abortion restrictions before viability, the point at which a fetus could survive outside the womb, about 22 to 24 weeks. It was the line set in Casey. But Roberts criticized his conservative colleagues' haste, and worried for the court's credibility.
"Surely we should adhere closely to principles of judicial restraint here, where the broader path the Court chooses entails repudiating a constitutional right we have not only previously recognized, but also expressly reaffirmed applying the doctrine of stare decisis," he wrote. "The Court's opinion is thoughtful and thorough, but those virtues cannot compensate for the fact that its dramatic and consequential ruling is unnecessary to decide the case before us."
Thomas, on the other hand, would have gone even further. In a concurring opinion no other justice joined, he said he agrees with the majority that nothing in the opinion "should be understood to cast doubt on precedents that do not concern abortion." Yet, he also says that in future cases, "we should reconsider all of this Court's substantive due process precedents," including those involving birth control, homosexual conduct and same-sex marriage." Perhaps, he writes, they could be justified in other ways.
The dissenters picked up on that. "Not until Roe, the majority argues, did people think abortion fell within the Constitution's guarantee of liberty," they wrote. "The same could be said, though, of most of the rights the majority claims it is not tampering with … Either the majority does not really believe in its own reasoning. Or if it does, all rights that have no history stretching back to the mid-19th century are insecure.“