US supreme court to hear most significant challenge to abortion rights in decades

Pro-choice groups fear 1973 Roe v Wade ruling is on the line in new case

Protesters gather outside the supreme court as arguments begin about the Texas abortion law on Capitol Hill in Washington. Photograph: Jabin Botsford/ The Washington Post via Getty

The US supreme court will on Wednesday begin hearing what could be the most significant challenge to existing abortion rights in America in decades.

The case, known as Dobbs v Jackson Women's Health Organisation, involves a law introduced in the state of Mississippi which seeks to ban nearly all abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

For nearly 50 years terminations have been permissible across America on foot of the landmark US supreme court Roe v Wade case in January 1973, which ruled that the constitution of the United States protected a pregnant woman's freedom to choose to have an abortion without excessive government restriction.

Pro-choice advocates maintain that for the past five decades it has been absolutely clear that bans on abortion before viability were unconstitutional. However, they fear this could be under threat on foot of the Mississippi case before the supreme court.


For many years it has been an aim of the conservative movement in America to have Roe v Wade overturned.

Up to now the complexion of the supreme court in the United States did not allow for this to happen. However, Donald Trump during his presidency had the opportunity to appoint three supreme court justices, and it now has a solid conservative majority.

For some pro-choice groups the fact the Dobbs case has made its way to the supreme court at all is a cause of alarm. Previous abortion bans introduced by states have been struck down on the basis that they would be rejected by the supreme court in light of the Roe v Wade precedent.

The Guttmacher Institute, a research organisation that supports abortion rights, maintained that by even accepting the Dobbs case, the court had signalled that it is willing to revisit the legality of abortion. Furthermore, it pointed to the court's decision in September not to block a Texas law banning abortion from six weeks, pending challenges in lower federal courts, as an indicator of its thinking.

The institute argued that in the absence of Roe v Wade, up to 26 states across the country were likely or certain to introduce abortion restrictions.


However, at the weekend the attorney general of Mississippi argued that an overturning of Roe v Wade would facilitate “returning decision-making about abortion policy to the people”.

Lynn Fitch maintained in an opinion piece in the Washington Post: "When the supreme court decided Roe, it took abortion policymaking out of the hands of the people. It set it apart from all sorts of other difficult policy issues and created a special set of rules that have acted to keep abortion policy behind the bench, where unelected judges decide the fate of the people's laws.

“The world in which we live today barely resembles the world of 1973, yet states have been unable to reflect our changed experiences in our laws.”

She said that in the intervening years law and public policy, culture and society had all advanced to give women more opportunities to pursue success in their professional lives and also have a family.

She argued that maternity leave and even paternity leave were now commonplace and access to contraception had improved. She said there were safe-haven laws in every state that allowed women to leave an unharmed newborn at a hospital or other designated refuge.

“Women regularly achieve our professional goals with flexible work schedules, telecommuting and independent business opportunities. Men and women are sharing responsibilities in the home better than ever before.”

The supreme court is unlikely to rule on the Dobbs case until some time next year. However, many see that a decade-long battle on whether to overturn or maintain American abortion law is coming to a head.

Martin Wall

Martin Wall

Martin Wall is the former Washington Correspondent of The Irish Times. He was previously industry correspondent