Hours before the start of oral arguments in a pivotal case Wednesday, heavy crowds began to gather near the Supreme Court brandishing signs ranging from “Abortion is Essential” to “I am the Pro-Life Generation.”
Advocates on both sides of the abortion debate braved cold weather to rally ahead of what experts say could be the biggest abortion case in a generation.
Political energy over the future of abortion policy has been mounting since the Supreme Court announced in May it would take up Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a challenge to Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban.
Abortion opponents see the case as a key opportunity to bring power back to states that want to place additional limits on abortion, while abortion rights advocates say they want to ensure equal access to reproductive health care.
Both movements have sparked a wave of action — ads, rallies, calls for donations, and other state legislative activity limiting or protecting abortion.
The justices referenced the emotion of the moment during oral arguments.
“Will this institution survive the stench that this creates in the public perception that the Constitution and its reading are just political acts?” asked Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Chief Justice John Roberts later said, “It is certainly true we cannot base our decisions on whether they’re popular or not with the people.”
Mississippi and abortion opponents are seeking to overturn or undermine decisions in the 1973 case Roe v. Wade, which established a constitutional right to abortion, and the 1992 case Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which prohibits abortion restrictions that result in an "undue burden" on a woman before a fetus is viable.
Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch, speaking outside the court Wednesday, said the case marks “a new chapter in American history” as “we turn the page on Roe v. Wade.”
March for Life President Jeanne Mancini, speaking after the arguments outside the court, said her organization's yearly march against abortion has grown every year since 1974 when it was first held.
“The march grows every year and I can’t think of a more tangible or hopeful sign that Roe and Casey are not settled law,” she said.
Speaking Tuesday at an event hosted by the Susan B. Anthony List, former Vice President Mike Pence gave a rare policy speech and pointed to a record 500 anti-abortion bills that have been introduced in state legislatures this year.
“Although I can't say how the Supreme Court will rule, today I can say with absolute confidence the tide has turned,” Pence said. “Now our Supreme Court has a chance to right that historic wrong once and for all.”
Push to protect abortion access
Questions from the 6-3 conservative majority hinted the court could favor allowing the Mississippi law to go into effect.
“It was a difficult day for everybody because we don’t know what’s going to go on behind this,” Shannon Brewer, clinic director of Jackson Women's Health Organization, said on a call with reporters.
Julie Rikelman, the attorney who argued on behalf of the clinic, said on the same call, “Should the court decide that it’s not a protected right under the liberty clause, we will continue to make every legal argument that we can in the courts, including the federal courts, that this needs to be protected under the constitution.”
DeGette pointed to legislation passed by the House in September that would expand access for women seeking abortions and protect abortion providers, and a House-passed spending package that would not block Medicaid from covering abortions.
“If the Supreme Court won’t act, Congress will act,” she said.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, speaking on the Senate floor Wednesday, again committed to bringing the House-passed access bill up for a vote.
“We will not let right-wing ideologies tell women what to do. Stand by,” Schumer said. “It won't be an easy fight, but we will not back down.”
Lee, who spoke about her own abortion years ago, said if Roe were overturned, abortion access for many would become even more fragmented.
“I know personally, personally how devastating the consequences of restrictive abortion laws can be,” she said. “The right to abortion is not real if only some people can access it.”
On a local level, state lawmakers like Georgia Democratic Rep. Park Cannon timed the release of new legislative proposals to expand abortion access to Wednesday's oral arguments.
Kwajelyn Jackson, executive director at Feminist Women's Health Center, emphasized the importance of paying attention to state-level abortion policies.
“It behooves us to pay attention when it can be stopped in its tracks before it has to be challenged in court, before it has to go through multiple appeals, before it is brought before the Supreme Court,” she said on a Tuesday briefing hosted by the Abortion Care Network. “There are opportunities for us to stop these things before they take effect.”