US Supreme Court judges lean towards abortion limits

The US Supreme Court’s conservative majority signalled on Wednesday it would uphold Mississippi’s 15-week ban on abortion and may go much further to overturn the nationwide right to abortion that has existed for nearly 50 years.

The fate of the court’s historic 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalising abortion throughout the US and its 1992 ruling in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which reaffirmed Roe, probably won’t be known until next June.

But after nearly two hours of arguments in the most pivotal abortion case to reach the nation’s highest court in 50 years, all six conservative justices, including three appointed by former President Donald Trump, indicated they would uphold the Mississippi law.

At the very least, such a decision would undermine Roe and Casey, which allow states to regulate but not ban abortion up until the point of viability, at roughly 24 weeks.

Abortion would soon become illegal or severely restricted in roughly half the states if Roe and Casey are overturned, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research organisation that supports abortion rights.

Legislatures in many Republican-led states are poised for action depending on the Supreme Court’s next decision.

The court’s three liberal justices said that reversing Roe and Casey would significantly damage the court’s legitimacy.

At least four of the six conservative justices on the court seemed receptive to overturning Roe and Casey.

Mississippi Solicitor General Scott Stewart urged the court to uphold the state’s 15-week ban and strike down the landmark previous cases that enshrined a women’s constitutional right to an abortion.

While acknowledging abortion is a “hard issue”, Stewart argued that individual states should have the right to set their own rules.

“When an issue affects everyone and when the Constitution does not take sides on it, it belongs to the people,” he said. “This court should overrule Roe and Casey and uphold the state’s law.”

Two conservatives, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Neil Gorsuch, appeared to favour a more cautious approach – upholding the 15-week ban in Mississippi while not going so far as to strike down Roe and Casey.

‘Fundamental deprivation’ of women’s liberties

Attorney Julie Rikelman, arguing against the Mississippi law for the Center for Reproductive Rights, said it is “flatly unconstitutional.”

“For a state to take control of a woman’s body and demand that she goes through pregnancy and childbirth – with all the physical risks and life-altering consequences that it brings – is a fundamental deprivation of her liberty,” Rikelman added.

Rikelman argued for maintaining viability as the legal cutoff point for an abortion. “Without viability, there will be no stopping point,” she said. “States will rush to ban abortion at virtually any point in pregnancy.”

Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar, representing the Biden administration, said the court “has never revoked a right that is so fundamental to so many Americans and so central to their ability to participate fully and equally in society.”

“The real-world effects of overruling Roe and Casey would be severe and swift,” Prelogar noted.

Speaking after the court session, President Joe Biden said he supports maintaining Roe.

“I think it’s a rational position to take. And I continue to support it,” he expressed.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, one of the three liberal justices, suggested overturning Roe would give the impression the court is a political and not a judicial body.

“Will this institution survive the stench that this creates in the public perception, that the Constitution and its reading are just political acts?” she asked.

“The right of a woman to choose, the right to control her own body has been clearly set,” she went on.

‘Fundamental right of women’

Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who was nominated by Trump, made it clear he believed access to abortion should be regulated by the states.

“Why should this court be the arbiter rather than Congress, the state legislatures, state supreme courts, the people,” Kavanaugh said.

“There’ll be different answers in Mississippi, in New York. Different answers in Alabama than California,” he continued. “Why is that not the right answer?”

But Solicitor General Prelogar said it was not the right answer because the court has recognised that abortion is a “fundamental right of women.”

“And the nature of fundamental rights is that it’s not left up to state legislatures to decide whether to honour them or not,” she declared.

The other justice nominated by Trump, Amy Coney Barrett, asked repeatedly why adoption cannot be considered a viable alternative to abortion.

The 2018 law passed by the legislature in Mississippi, a conservative Bible Belt state, was blocked as unconstitutional by lower courts before ending up in the Supreme Court.

As the court heard arguments from the two sides on Wednesday, hundreds of pro-choice activists and anti-abortion demonstrators gathered outside carrying signs and banners and chanting slogans.

“Abortion Is Murder,” read placards carried by anti-abortion protesters. “Abortion Is Health Care,” said a sign displayed by supporters of abortion rights.

The Supreme Court is expected to render a decision by June.

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