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U.S. abortion rights: Supreme Court 'set to overturn' Roe v. Wade

by Christine Murray and Anastasia Moloney | @chrissiemurray | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 3 May 2022 09:15 GMT

Protestors react outside the U.S. Supreme Court to the leak of a draft majority opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito preparing for a majority of the court to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion rights decision later this year, in Washington, U.S., May 2, 2022. REUTERS/Moira Warburton

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The U.S. Supreme Court is preparing to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling recognizing a woman's right to end a pregnancy, according to Politico

May 3 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The U.S. Supreme Court looks set to vote to overturn the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide, according to a leaked initial draft majority opinion published by Politico on Monday.

The unprecedented leak from the conservative-majority Supreme Court sent shock waves through the United States, not least because the court prides itself on keeping its internal deliberations secret and leaks are extremely uncommon.

IN FOCUS: Abortion curbs around the world

Abortion rights campaigners have said the decision is likely to effectively gut the 1973 ruling, giving states a free hand to limit or ban the procedure.

If Roe v. Wade was overturned, more women from conservative states like Mississippi - whose proposed abortion ban is at the centre of the current Supreme Court case - would have to travel elsewhere for abortions, making it particularly difficult for poor, Black and Hispanic women to access the procedure.

What is Roe v. Wade?

In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court made a landmark ruling known as Roe v. Wade that said a woman's decision to have an abortion was covered under the right to privacy.

The case involved a woman under the pseudonym of Jane Roe and Henry Wade, a state prosecutor in Texas, where abortion was only allowed if a pregnant woman's life was in danger.

The justices voted 7-2 that restrictions on abortion could not be broad and that the constitution protected the right to abortion before the stage at which a fetus could survive outside the womb, between 24 and 28 weeks.

"The detriment that the State would impose upon the pregnant woman by denying this choice altogether is apparent," the ruling said.

What has happened since Roe v. Wade?

Abortion remains a divisive issue in the United States, as in many countries. Christian conservatives are among those most opposed to it.

For decades, conservative activists and politicians have tried to overturn and chip away at Roe v. Wade.

Lawmakers in states from Arkansas to Utah have been trying to pass bills that limit abortion rights, with efforts emboldened under former President Donald Trump.

Trump nominated three of the nine Supreme Court justices during his four-year term, tilting the balance firmly towards conservatives. Six of the justices in total were appointed by Republican presidents.

The leaked ruling relates to the state of Mississippi's bid to revive its ban on abortion from 15 weeks of pregnancy, a law blocked by lower courts. If it is upheld, it is widely agreed the ruling would pave the way for other states to pass similar bans.

U.S. abortion rates have steadily declined since the early 1980s, reaching the lowest levels on record in recent years, according to the nonprofit Guttmacher Institute.

Most Americans think abortion should be legal in all or most cases, according to a 2019 survey by Pew Research Center said.

What will happen now?

Abortion rights activists argue that any rollback would have immediate knock on effects across the country.

"The consequences of a Roe reversal would be devastating. Over 20 states would prohibit abortion outright," said Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights.

Some states have "trigger laws" that would instantly ban abortion if Roe v. Wade is overturned.

If Roe is overturned, abortion is likely to remain legal in liberal states. More than a dozen states currently have laws protecting abortion rights. Numerous Republican-led states have passed various abortion restrictions in defiance of the Roe precedent in recent years.

Republicans could try to enact a nationwide abortion ban, while Democrats could also seek to protect abortion rights at the national level.

What is happening elsewhere?   

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected abortion access around the world, with lockdowns preventing some women from undergoing the procedure in some places, while elsewhere at-home abortions pills have become easier to obtain.

Legislative decisions and court rulings have continued to revise abortion laws.

In Mexico, the Supreme Court ruled last September that penalizing abortion is unconstitutional, meaning courts can no longer prosecute abortion cases.

That followed Argentina's landmark decision to legalize abortion last January.

Poland has been implementing a strict ban on terminating pregnancies.

Related stories:

U.S. states making 2021 moves on abortion rights and access

The price of abortion curbs: Economists weigh in on U.S. debate

U.S. abortion curbs: Fearing business impact, companies speak out

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