`Last week they were my opinions – now they're the law," the late Supreme Court judge Niall MacCarthy is said to have joked after his appointment to Ireland's highest court in 1982. For the conservative majority on the US supreme court today, however, that idea is as good as judicial doctrine. Having tightened their grip on the all-powerful court under Donald Trump, whose appointments left them with six out of nine seats, the ascendant radical right-wingers are doing exactly as their supporters hoped – and as the rest of America feared.
On Wednesday the supreme court refused to block a Texas law banning abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy, when many women do not even know they are pregnant. The law, which is the most prohibitive in the United States, makes no exception for cases of rape or incest and expressly allows private citizens to sue abortion providers or anyone who helps a person to have the procedure. The 5-4 decision, in which the Republican-appointed chief justice John Roberts sided with the liberal minority, is the clearest signal yet that the court could overturn Roe v Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that established a constitutional right to abortion.
As such it has sent tremors through the political system. President Joe Biden said the decision "unleashes unconstitutional chaos and empowers self-anointed enforcers to have devastating impact". The outcome again underlines the grossly excessive power of the US supreme court, where judges serve for life and take decisions that cannot be undone because of a virtually unamendable constitution. Of more immediate concern are the appalling consequences of this cruel decision for women in Texas, where it will impose a particular burden on those without the means to travel to another state where abortion is legal.
In the White House and in Congress, Democrats are looking at strategies to minimise the impact of the Texas law. Activists across the US are organising and gathering funds. Roe v Wade has seldom looked more vulnerable. But the fight to save it is far from over.