U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, leaving abortion rights up to states
Ruling comes a month after leaked opinion draft raised tensions
The U.S. Supreme Court has overturned the Roe v. Wade opinion that has secured constitutional protections for abortion in the country for nearly 50 years.
The milestone ruling, a draft of which was leaked last month, has the potential to claw back abortion access across the U.S. by allowing states to restrict or outright ban the procedure.
The court, in a 6-3 ruling powered by its conservative majority, upheld a Republican-backed Mississippi law that bans abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
The vote was 5-4 to overturn Roe v. Wade, with conservative Chief Justice John Roberts writing separately to say he would have upheld the Mississippi law without taking the additional step of erasing the Roe precedent altogether.
That original 1973 Roe v. Wade decision ruling found that a woman's decision to terminate a pregnancy was protected by the right to privacy that flows from the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects a citizen's right to "life, liberty and property."
But Associate Justice Samuel Alito disagreed with that interpretation in Friday's majority opinion on the case challenging the Mississippi law, Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization.
"The constitution makes no reference to abortion, and no such right is implicitly protected by any constitutional provision," Alito wrote in the opinion, which was very similar to the leaked draft.
"It is time to heed the constitution and return the issue of abortion to the people's elected representatives."
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The right to abortion, Alito wrote, is "critically different from any other right that this court has held to fall within the Fourteenth Amendment's protection of 'liberty.'"
It's also different, he said, than the rights recognized in the court's past decisions on matters such as intimate sexual relations, contraception and marriage, because it "destroys" what Roe and a subsequent abortion case that the court also overruled Friday, Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, called "fetal life" and the Mississippi law describes as an "unborn human being."
"Roe was egregiously wrong from the start," Alito said. "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."
Read the full text of the ruling:
26 states asked court to overrule Roe
In Roe v. Wade, the court ruled that states could only interfere with a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy after a fetus reached the "viability" stage, around 24 to 28 weeks of pregnancy, when the fetus could be considered viable outside the womb.
After Friday's decision, individual state legislatures will now decide how to regulate the medical procedure and to what extent they want to allow, restrict or ban it outright.
Twenty-six states asked the Supreme Court to overrule the Roe and Casey decisions and allow them to "regulate or prohibit pre-viability abortions," Alito wrote in his opinion.
Many of those, largely in the South and Midwest, have already signalled that they will likely move quickly to ban abortion or restrict access to it to some degree.
Thomas urges re-examination of other rights
At least 13 states have so-called trigger laws that ban or severely limit abortion and moved swiftly to enact them as soon as Roe v. Wade was overturned. Some abortion clinics in those states stopped performing abortions immediately in the wake of the ruling as they assessed their new reality.
The Supreme Court decision also overrules the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision, which upheld the protection of a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy without undue burdens such as waiting periods and consent and notification requirements but allowed states to add some limitations, including in the first trimester.
Casey was supposed to have settled the question of the constitutional right to abortion, Alito wrote.
"As has become increasingly apparent in the intervening years, Casey did not achieve that goal," his decision reads. "Americans continue to hold passionate and widely divergent views on abortion, and state legislatures have acted accordingly."
Liberal justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan issued a joint dissent.
"Whatever the exact scope of the coming laws, one result of today's decision is certain: the curtailment of women's rights, and of their status as free and equal citizens," they wrote.
In a concurring opinion that raised fears among many that the justices might roll back other rights, Justice Clarence Thomas — part of Friday's conservative majority — called on the court to overturn other high court rulings protecting same-sex marriage, gay sex and the use of contraceptives.
White House condemns ruling
The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has been considering what executive action could be taken to thwart the top court's ruling, but any such attempt would likely also face legal challenges.
Biden called it a "tragic error" for the court to overturn the 7-2 Roe decision, which came down during Richard Nixon's presidency and has remained in effect through five subsequent Republican presidential administrations.
The president said that the poorest of women will be affected the most by restricted access to the procedure, and that "the health and life of women in this nation are now at risk."
"The court has done what it has never done before — expressly take away a constitutional right that is so fundamental to so many Americans that it had already been recognized," said Biden.
Because the Senate does not have the 60 votes to codify abortion rights into law, Biden said, "voters need to make their voices heard."
"This fall, Roe is on the ballot. Personal freedoms are on the ballot."
U.S. Vice-President Kamala Harris called the ruling "a health-care crisis."
"Millions of women in America will go to bed tonight without access to the health care and reproductive care that they had this morning," she said in Illinois, where she had been scheduled to speak about maternal health before the Supreme Court decision came down.
Tears of joy, despair outside court
The invalidation of Roe v. Wade marks a significant victory for the anti-abortion movement, whose supporters have been lobbying legislators to confirm conservative judges on the Supreme Court in hopes of gaining a majority that would eventually undo the precedent.
For days, the Supreme Court has been the gathering ground for a relatively small but loud group of pro-choice and anti-abortion activists, as they awaited the decision.
As the opinion was set to be released, the crowd got quieter until a woman yelled in a megaphone "the constitution does not confer a right to an abortion!"
The ruling immediately set off cheers of celebration for the anti-abortion crowd but loud cries of "illegitimate" from those supporters of abortion rights.
"We will keep fighting. We will aid and abet those in red states and allow blue states so they can have abortion," said Carie McDonald.
"We are going to fight back. We are never ever ever going to go silently. I don't accept the ruling."
But for Lauren Marlowe, 22 from Fredericksburg, Va., this was a day to celebrate, "I'm so excited. Roe v. Wade was just overturned," she said "We're living in a post-Roe America now. I'm just so excited."
Officials urge calm
The opinion leak, first reported by Politico, and news that a majority of five of the conservative judges seemed set to overturn Roe v. Wade, sparked outrage and protests across the country. A 2.4-metre-tall fence was erected around the Supreme Court in the days after the leak as part of ramped-up security measures.
In its latest terrorism advisory bulletin, the Department of Homeland Security warned that "individuals who advocate both for and against abortion have, on public forums, encouraged violence, including against government, religious, and reproductive health-care personnel and facilities."
Some buildings housing organizations known to be opposed to abortion have been vandalized in recent weeks, while on the opposite end of the issue, arson damaged a Wyoming clinic that soon planned to offer abortions to pregnant people.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers from both parties have expressed concern about protesters showing up on the streets outside of the homes of some of the conservative justices, though they have gathered peacefully.
In an incident separate from those demonstrations, an armed man who travelled from California to Justice Brett Kavanaugh's residence in Maryland has been charged with attempted murder.
Biden implored Americans to "keep all protests peaceful."
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With files from The Associated Press, Reuters and CBC News