Roe v Wade: US supreme court strikes down abortion rights

Biden says decision to overturn 1973 ruling ‘taking the country back 150 years’

The US supreme court has eliminated the constitutional right to abortion, overturning a 50-year-old ruling that legalised the procedure across the country.

The court on Friday struck down the landmark “Roe Vs Wade” decision from 1973 in a ruling backed by five justices on the nine-person court.

More than 20 states are set to introduce under “trigger laws” or reactivate bans or restrictions on abortion following the removal of the constitutional right to terminations.

Abortion is likely to remain legal in liberal states. More than a dozen states currently have laws protecting abortion rights.

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Before the Roe decision, many states banned abortion, leaving women who wanted to terminate a pregnancy with few options. As a result of Friday’s ruling, women with unwanted pregnancies in large swathes of America may face the choice of travelling to another state where the procedure remains legal and available, buying abortion pills online or having a potentially dangerous illegal abortion.

US chief justice John Roberts voted with the majority but said he would have taken “a more measured course”, stopping short of overruling the Roe decision outright. The court’s three liberal members dissented.

The supreme court case, Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization, concerned a law enacted in 2018 by the Republican-dominated legislature in Mississippi that banned abortion if “the probable gestational age of the unborn human” was determined to be more than 15 weeks. It was upheld in a 6-3 ruling, powered by the court’s conservative majority.

In the majority decision, Justice Samuel Alito said the Roe Vs Wade decision had been “egregiously wrong from the start”.

“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 (a separate 1992 case known as) Casey have inflamed debate and deepened division.”

Justice Alito said the issue of abortion should be returned to politicians to decide on.

He said that Roe v Wade as well as a 1992 supreme court decision upholding abortion rights in a case known as Planned Parenthood v Casey had to be overturned.

“The constitution makes no reference to abortion, and no such right is implicitly protected by any constitutional provision, including the one on which the defenders of Roe and Casey now chiefly rely — the due process clause of the fourteenth amendment,” Justice Alito wrote.

“That provision has been held to guarantee some rights that are not mentioned in the constitution, but any such right must be ‘deeply rooted in this nation’s history and tradition’ and ‘implicit in the concept of ordered liberty.”

“It is time to heed the constitution and return the issue of abortion to the people’s elected representatives,” Justice Alito wrote.

The court’s three liberal justices wrote: ”In overruling Roe and Casey, this court betrays its guiding principles. With sorrow — for this court, but more, for the many millions of American women who have today lost a fundamental constitutional protection — we dissent.”

A draft version of the ruling indicating the court was likely to overturn Roe was leaked in May, igniting a political firestorm.

US president Joe Biden criticised the decision, saying the health and life of American women were now at risk.

“It’s a sad day for the court and for the country,” Mr Biden said in a White House address after the ruling, which he said was taking the country back 150 years.

Mr Biden promised to go on fighting for reproductive rights but said no executive order can guarantee a woman’s right to choose.

He urged voters to send lawmakers to Congress who will work to codify abortion rights as the law of the land.

“This fall, Roe is on the ballot. Personal freedoms are on the ballot,” Mr Biden said.

Mr Biden made a point of calling for any protests to remain peaceful. “No intimidation. Violence is never acceptable,” he said.

Since 2018, the court lost two champions of abortion rights. Liberal justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died in 2020, being replaced by Amy Coney Barrett, who as an academic before joining the judiciary signalled support for overturning Roe.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, a conservative who sometimes sided with the liberal justices on social issues such as abortion and LGBT rights, retired in 2018 and was replaced by Brett Kavanaugh. Justice Kennedy was part of the majority in the 1992 decision and voted to strike down the Texas abortion restriction in 2016.

Neil Gorsuch in 2017 replaced the late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, who was an abortion opponent.

The speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi said the ruling on Friday was “cruel, outrageous and heart-wrenching”.

“But make no mistake: the rights of women and all Americans are on the ballot (in the midterm elections)this November.”

Former president Barack Obama said: “Today, the supreme court not only reversed nearly 50 years of precedent, it relegated the most intensely personal decision someone can make to the whims of politicians and ideologues -attacking the essential freedoms of millions of Americans.”

The supreme court ruling was welcomed by the Republican senate minority leader Mitch McConnell.

“Millions of Americans have spent half a century praying, marching, and working toward today’s historic victories for the rule of law and for innocent life. I have been proud to stand with them throughout our long journey and I share their joy today.” — Additional reporting: Reuters

Martin Wall

Martin Wall

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