The Supreme Court on Friday overruled Roe v. Wade and other decades-old abortion decisions, returning policymaking power to individual states and paving the way to an overhaul of abortion law nationwide.
Friday’s ruling, written by Justice Samuel Alito, has much in common with a draft opinion leaked to Politico earlier this year. The draft showed that five justices had voted to overturn the viability standard laid out in Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which guaranteed access to an abortion until around the 24th week of pregnancy. At the time of the leak in early May, those in the majority and the dissenters were still working out the details of their opinions.
In the final decision released Friday, justices in the majority argued that Roe v. Wade represented an “abuse of judicial authority.”
“For the first 185 years after the adoption of the Constitution, each State was permitted to address this issue in accordance with the views of its citizens. Then, in 1973, this Court decided Roe v. Wade. Even though the Constitution makes no mention of abortion, the Court held that it confers a broad right to obtain one,” Alito wrote in the majority opinion, which was joined by four of his fellow conservatives.
The ruling says that the Constitution does not grant a right to an abortion, as Roe v. Wade had claimed. “We hold that Roe and Casey must be overruled,” the majority opinion said.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote his own opinion in which he concurred in the judgment but criticized justices in the majority for issuing such a broad decision.
“If it is not necessary to decide more to dispose of a case, then it is necessary not to decide more. ... Surely we should adhere closely to principles of judicial restraint here,” he said.
Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor co-authored a dissent.
“With sorrow — for this court, but more, for the many millions of American women who have today lost a fundamental constitutional protection — we dissent,” they wrote.
State-level abortion policies
The case that led to Friday’s decision, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, centered on a Mississippi policy barring most abortions after the 15th week of pregnancy. The justices were asked to consider whether states have a right to restrict access to abortion before the point of fetal viability.
In the majority opinion, the justices definitively said yes, arguing that the country will be better off if the power to set abortion policies rests with individual states.
“It is time to heed the Constitution and return the issue of abortion to the people’s elected representatives,” Alito wrote.
In anticipation of the Supreme Court overturning its abortion precedents, several red states have tightened their abortion restrictions in recent months.
Just this week, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards signed a law that would lead to the closure of abortion clinics in the state once the Supreme Court’s decision was handed down and ban most abortions, including in cases of rape and incest.
Meanwhile, more liberal states have adjusted their abortion laws to broaden access as they prepared to potentially serve women coming from conservative states.
Outside the Supreme Court building Friday morning, law enforcement officials gathered to prepare for protests as fences and other barriers cut off access to the steps. Politico’s report sparked nationwide rallies in May, including outside the homes of conservative justices.
President Joe Biden addressed the Supreme Court decision from the White House and vowed to do what he could to protect access to abortion.
“Let’s be very clear the health and life of women in this nation are now at risk,” he said.
In an interview with Fox News, former President Donald Trump celebrated the ruling and credited God — and his own presidency — with making it possible.
“I delivered everything as promised, including nominating and getting three highly respected and strong Constitutionalists confirmed to the United States Supreme Court,” he said in a statement.
Former President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, released a statement, calling on people upset by the ruling to get more involved in politics and join protests in their area.
“This decision is unlikely to significantly reduce abortions, which have been steadily going down over the past several decades thanks in large part to better access to contraception and education. Instead, as we’ve already begun to see in states with restrictive abortion laws, those women with means would travel to states where abortion remains legal and safe. Meanwhile, those without enough money or access to transportation or ability to take off from school or work would face the same circumstances most women faced before Roe, desperately seeking out illegal abortions that inevitably pose grave risks to their health, their future ability to bear children, and sometimes their lives,” they said.
Several advocacy group and religious organizations also released prepared statements, either praising the court for protecting the lives of unborn children or condemning the conservative justices for putting women’s lives at risk.
“This is a great day in American history, especially for the millions of children whose innocent lives will be spared from the horrors of abortion in the years to come. For too long, Roe v. Wade has poisoned our courts, our culture, and our laws. Today’s decision corrects the grave constitutional error of Roe v. Wade — and finally gives the American people, through their elected representatives, the power to fix America’s extreme abortion laws and enshrine protections for the unborn in law,” said Kevin Roberts, president of The Heritage Foundation, in a statement.
Similarly, Kristen Waggoner, general counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, which worked with Mississippi lawmakers on the 15-week abortion ban, praised the court and urged state lawmakers to do more to protect babies and mothers.
“We now turn to the states to ensure that unborn children and their mothers are protected from the gruesome reality of abortion, and that they receive the care and resources they need to flourish,” she said.
Friday’s decision will be a “turning point in the pro-life movement,” said Brent Leatherwood, acting president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
“As this chapter comes to a close, we must understand this is not the end of our important work. The issue of abortion has now been turned over to the states, many of which have either implemented or are considering some of the most abhorrently permissive pro-abortion proposals ever. A consistent, convictional pro-life witness is needed now more than ever in state legislatures and local communities. So let us ... roll our sleeves up to save preborn lives, serve vulnerable mothers and support families in our communities,” he said.
Leaders from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishop’s described the decision as “the fruit of prayers.”
“Now is the time to begin the work of building a post-Roe America. It is a time for healing wounds and repairing social divisions; it is a time for reasoned reflection and civil dialogue, and for coming together to build a society and economy that supports marriages and families, and where every woman has the support and resources she needs to bring her child into this world in love,” they said in a statement.
They continued, “As religious leaders, we pledge ourselves to continue our service to God’s great plan of love for the human person, and to work with our fellow citizens to fulfill America’s promise to guarantee the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all people.”
Other religious leaders and faith groups criticized the decision, arguing that it will enflame political tensions and trample the religious freedom rights of more liberal people of faith.
“Though we knew what was coming, this is an attack on the health and well-being of millions of Americans. This ruling will endanger the health and safety of especially our most vulnerable communities, including people of color, young people, and those in rural and underserved areas. The court has unequivocally failed these communities — and the consequences will be devastating,” said Katy Joseph, director of policy and advocacy for Interfaith Alliance, in a statement.
“Today’s dismantling of nearly 50 years of Supreme Court precedent undermines reproductive freedom, endangers people’s health, and will inevitably lead to the criminalization of those who get abortions and the doctors who perform them. We know that abortion bans do not stop abortions; they only stop safe abortions,” said the Jewish Council for Public Affairs in a statement.
Leaders from Muslim Advocates argued that, by overturning Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court violated the First Amendment’s religious freedom protections.
“By upholding a law that defines life as beginning at conception, the U.S. Supreme Court has enshrined the religious doctrine of one minority religious community into law,” they said in a statement.
Religious freedom battles ahead
Religious freedom law will almost certainly play a large role in future efforts to challenge the new ruling. Already, a synagogue in Florida has sued the state over its abortion restrictions, claiming that abortion bans violate Jews’ religious belief that people must get an abortion if their own life is at risk.
Legal scholars previously told the Deseret News that such lawsuits are unlikely to succeed since the people of faith who bring the claim will have to prove that their interest in protecting abortion rights is primarily faith-based and that their religion requires abortion, rather than just permitting it.
Even if a religious freedom challenge to abortion restriction makes it to the Supreme Court, the conservative majority is unlikely to side with religious objectors, experts said.
“They care about abortion a lot more than they care about religious liberty for religious views they disagree with. That’s the realist answer,” said Douglas Laycock, a professor of law and religious studies at the University of Virginia, to the Deseret News.
Still, faith-based organizations that support abortion rights have vowed to explore every option in the days ahead.
“Religious freedom demands the right to an abortion so people can make their own reproductive decisions according to their own principles. Abortion bans undermine religious freedom by attempting to impose one religious viewpoint on all of us. Americans United is readying religious freedom litigation which will bring this argument to our courts,” said Rachel Laser, the organization’s president and CEO, in a statement.