The Long Path to Reclaim Abortion Rights
Attempting to recover from their staggering loss in the Supreme Court, abortion rights groups have mounted a multilevel legal and political attack aimed at blocking and reversing abortion bans in courts and at ballot boxes across the country.
In the week since the court overturned Roe v. Wade, litigators for abortion rights groups have rolled out a wave of lawsuits in nearly a dozen states to hold off bans triggered by the court’s decision, with the promise of more suits to come. They are aiming to prove that provisions in state constitutions establish a right to abortion that the Supreme Court’s decision said did not exist in the U.S. Constitution.
Advocates of abortion rights are also working to defeat ballot initiatives that would strip away a constitutional right to abortion, and to pass those that would establish one, in states where abortion access is contingent on who controls the governor’s mansion or the state house.
And after years of complaints that Democrats neglected state and local elections, Democratic-aligned groups are campaigning to reverse slim Republican majorities in some state legislatures, and to elect abortion rights supporters to positions from county commissioner to state supreme court justices that can have influence over the enforcement of abortion restrictions.
“You want all the belt and suspenders that you can have,” said Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, which litigated Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the case the Supreme Court used to overturn Roe. While the Supreme Court said it wanted to end five decades of bitter debate on abortion, its decision has set up a new fight, one that promises to be long and equally bitter.
Although abortion rights supporters say their strategy is promising, the path ahead is slow and not at all certain. Polls show that Americans overwhelmingly say that the decision to have an abortion should be made by women and their doctors rather than state legislatures. But Republican-controlled state legislatures have passed hundreds of restrictions on abortion over the last decade, and legislative districts are heavily gerrymandered to protect Republican incumbents. Litigation in state courts will be decided by judges who in many cases have been appointed by anti-abortion governors.
Abortion rights groups say their cases relying on state constitutions offer a viable path forward to establish Roe-like protections in states. Even in conservative states such as Oklahoma and Mississippi, they see an opportunity to overturn abortion bans and establish a constitutional backstop against further restriction.
But in other places, the goal of the litigation is to at least temporarily restore or preserve abortion access, now that the court’s decision stands to make it illegal or effectively so in more than half the states, which include 33.5 million women of childbearing age.
In Louisiana, for example, though the state constitution expressly says there is no right to abortion, the legal challenge has allowed three clinics to continue serving women whose plans to end their pregnancies were thrown into disarray by the court’s decision.
From Opinion: The End of Roe v. Wade
Commentary by Times Opinion writers and columnists on the Supreme Court’s decision to end the constitutional right to abortion.
- Michelle Goldberg: “The end of Roe v. Wade was foreseen, but in wide swaths of the country, it has still created wrenching and potentially tragic uncertainties.”
- Spencer Bokat-Lindell: “What exactly does it mean for the Supreme Court to experience a crisis of legitimacy, and is it really in one?”
- Bonnie Kristian, journalist: “For many backers of former President Donald Trump, Friday’s Supreme Court decision was a long-awaited vindication.” It might also mark the end of his political career.
- Erika Bachiochi, legal scholar: “It is precisely the unborn child’s state of existential dependence upon its mother, not its autonomy, that makes it especially entitled to care, nurture and legal protection.”
“We have to take these things in steps,” said Joanna Wright, a partner at Boies Schiller Flexner who, with the Center for Reproductive Rights, is leading the Louisiana case. “A lot can change in a day, a month and six months. Time will tell the rest, but this is the fight right now.”
The Supreme Court’s decision has flipped the dynamic of abortion strategy that has prevailed for the half-century since Roe, when anti-abortion groups chipped away at legal access by electing like-minded state legislators and passing increasingly strict laws, and abortion rights groups could rely on Roe to prevent the most severe bans from taking effect.
Now, anti-abortion groups and congressional Republicans discuss federal legislation that would ban abortion across the country after 15 weeks of pregnancy, and abortion rights groups have begun climbing the steeper and narrower path state by state.
“Democracy is a collective action,” said Ms. Wright, “and what we’ve seen from the anti-abortion movement is an ability to mobilize all the pieces of that,” which culminated, she added, with the overturning of Roe.
By Friday, the groups had temporarily blocked bans from taking effect in Utah, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Florida; judges have set hearings over the next several weeks to consider permanent injunctions. But they lost bids to hold off bans in Ohio and Texas.
Anti-abortion groups had argued for decades that the question of abortion should be left up to states, not to unelected judges in Washington. Within hours of the court’s decision, Republican politicians and law enforcement officials announced that bans, once held up in court, were now in effect, and would be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
They decried their opponents’ strategy in the courts.
“To say that the State Constitution mandates things like dismemberment abortions, I just don’t think that’s the proper interpretation,” Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, said after Florida’s ruling temporarily blocking a law prohibiting abortion after 15 weeks.
The legal challenges argue that the Supreme Court’s decision has thrown abortion providers and patients into chaos, subjecting them to state laws that are often unclear, contradictory or confusing. Women have shown up for appointments only to be told that their pregnancies have now progressed too far to be eligible for abortion under new laws banning abortion after six weeks. In Montana, Planned Parenthood clinics said recently that they would require proof of residency for women seeking abortion pills, because of fears that prosecutors in other states might prosecute anyone who helped their residents get abortions.
Abortion rights groups have not given up on hopes of federal action to protect abortion: They are pushing President Biden to use a declaration of a public health emergency to allow the Department of Health and Human Services to authorize out-of-state providers to prescribe and provide abortion pills to women in states where abortion bans have made them illegal.
They are also pushing the Senate to suspend its filibuster and pass the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would establish a right to abortion before viability, as was provided in Roe. Mr. Biden reversed himself on Thursday to say that he supported lifting the filibuster, though he also told a group of Democratic governors that there were not enough votes in the Senate to do so.
But by necessity, the groups are focused first on state action.
While the Supreme Court’s opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito, declared that it was returning the regulation of abortion regulation “to the people and their elected representatives,” its decision has delivered the issue to other courts, those in the states.
“If the Supreme Court and Justice Alito and the anti-abortion advocates thought this was going to settle the question, they are going to see just how wrong they are,” Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a news conference Friday alongside lawyers and leaders from the Center for Reproductive Rights and Planned Parenthood. “The proliferation of litigation that will embroil the states in our country for years to come is going to underscore that this is not settled in the public’s mind.”
The lawsuits argue that state constitutions offer more protection for abortion than the federal constitution, either by quirk of state tradition or history. Some, such as Florida’s, include an explicit right to privacy. In Kentucky, lawyers argue their constitution provides a right to “bodily autonomy” as well as privacy. The Roe decision in 1973 declared that the U.S. Constitution afforded a right to privacy that included a woman’s right to abortion; while the Supreme Court overturned that decision, it generally cannot overturn what states say in their own constitutions.
The suit in Utah, one of the most conservative states in the country, seeks to protect abortion under a provision of the state constitution — adopted in 1896 — that provides that “both males and female citizens of this state shall enjoy equally all civil, political and religious rights and privileges.”
Largely because of the influence of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the constitution also ensures that state residents have the right to plan their own families; the lawsuit argues this includes the right to choose abortion.
Even in states where lawsuits have been successful, abortion rights groups say they are playing Whack-a-Mole. In Utah, as soon as the court put a temporary injunction on the state’s trigger law banning abortion, a legislator declared that the state’s law against abortion after 18 weeks, which courts had upheld while Roe was in effect, was now the operative law.
“We’re in a chess game and we haven’t gotten checkmate,” said Karrie Galloway, the chief executive of Planned Parenthood in Utah. “We’re doing check, check, check, check. Unfortunately, we’re doing check, check, check with pregnant people and their families’ lives.”
In Kansas, a state Supreme Court decision in 2019 found a right to abortion under the constitutional provisions for “equal and inalienable natural rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But anti-abortion groups put an initiative on the primary ballot this August that seeks to amend the constitution to explicitly say that it does not include a right to abortion, and that the Legislature has the authority to pass further restrictions.
That vote will be the first indication of how much the outrage seen in response to the Supreme Court’s decision translates into support for abortion rights in elections.
Historically, voters who oppose abortion have been more driven to vote on the issue than those who support a right to abortion. But polls taken since the leak of a draft of the Supreme Court’s decision in May and the final decision in late June show that those who support abortion rights — largely Democrats — now cite it as one of their top concerns, and that the court’s decision has motivated them more to vote in elections this fall.
Vote Pro Choice is attempting to turn out women, especially Black and Latina women, to vote in races including county commissioners, judges and sheriffs, particularly in states such as Texas and Georgia with restrictive abortion laws — positions responsible for enforcing anti-harassment laws outside abortion clinics, and deciding whether to give government money to crisis pregnancy centers, which anti-abortion groups have used to steer women away from abortions.
Democrats need to learn from the successes of the anti-abortion groups and Republicans, said Sara Tabatabaie, the group’s chief political officer.
“We have been out-raised, out-organized and out-funded for 50 years, and that is across the board,” she said. But she is encouraged by the number of people who say abortion will guide their votes in November: “In moments of tragedy, I am hopeful that there comes solidarity and increased clarity.”