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The 5 events that led to the demise of Roe v. Wade

As Roe v. Wade is overturned, many Americans will ask, "How did this happen?” These five turning points represent a good place to start.


As recently as 2015, most Americans not only supported reproductive rights, they saw no real need to be concerned about those rights’ disappearance. After all, even Republicans kept telling voters that Roe v. Wade‘s future was not in jeopardy.

Even as leading progressive voices tried to raise alarm about what was poised to happen, the public didn’t really believe it. The week after the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the Dobbs case, a Politico/Morning Consult poll found that nearly two-thirds of the public “either said they didn’t know how likely the court was to overturn Roe or said the court isn’t likely to overturn the precedent.”

With this in mind, I suspect there will be millions of Americans who learn of Roe‘s demise today, and they’ll be absolutely dumbfounded. “Wait,” they’ll say. “The Supreme Court just took away a constitutional right? A legal foundation that’s existed for a half-century is gone? How did this happen?”

Looking back over the last several years, five things happened.

1. The 2016 blockade. Circling back to our earlier coverage, it was in February 2016 when then-Justice Antonin Scalia died unexpectedly. Then-President Barack Obama nominated Merrick Garland, a center-left, compromise jurist — who’d received praise from Senate Republicans — to fill the vacancy. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and his conference instead decided to impose an unprecedented high-court blockade for nearly a year, hoping that Americans might elect a Republican president and Republican Congress despite the GOP’s abusive tactics. It worked: McConnell effectively stole a Supreme Court seat from one administration and handed it to another.

2. Trump was elected in 2016. With the Supreme Court even divided, with four justices on the right and four justices on the left, Democrats tried to tell voters the 2016 election was a historic, once-in-a-generation opportunity to stop the high court’s drift to the right. Just enough Americans voted for Donald Trump anyway, helping set the stage for today’s ruling.

3. Changing the rules for Gorsuch. As of early 2017, Senate rules still permitted filibusters for Supreme Court nominees. Given the GOP’s 2016 blockade, Senate Democrats weren’t about to treat Neil Gorsuch’s nomination as a routine matter. Senate Republicans responded by executing the so-called “nuclear option” and confirming the conservative jurist anyway.

4. From Kennedy to Kavanaugh. Justice Anthony Kennedy, ignoring concerns about Trump’s corruption and radicalism, retired and gave the incumbent president another opportunity to fill a high court vacancy. Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh, who faced fairly broad public opposition and bipartisan opposition in the Senate. The Republican majority confirmed him anyway. A month later, voters rewarded the Senate GOP, slightly expanding its majority.

5. From RBG to ACB: In September 2020, then-Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, and according to her family, her dying wish was that the Senate would wait to confirm her successor until after the election. Republicans nevertheless scrambled to confirm Amy Coney Barrett, ignoring all of the principles they pretended to care about four years earlier regarding filling vacancies in an election year, and confirmed the conservative during the early voting period.

Soon after, voters elected a Democratic White House and a Democratic Congress, but by that point, it was too late — the 4-4 split that existed on Election Day 2016 had given way to a six-member, far-right majority that could effectively do as it pleased on any issue.

To be sure, this summary is truncated. The fight over reproductive rights unfolded over decades, and there have been a great many important developments that unfolded outside of these five points.

But when your gobsmacked friends and relatives wonder aloud about Roe‘s demise, these five turning points represent a good place to start.