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The Supreme Court takes up the future of U.S. reproductive rights

For nearly a half-century, Roe v. Wade has been a pillar of American politics. The Supreme Court now has an opportunity to knock that pillar down.


The U.S. Supreme Court issued its Roe v. Wade ruling in 1973, just a few months before I was born, and for nearly a half-century, this decision has served as a central pillar of politics in the United States.

The question now is whether a very different Supreme Court, now dominated by Republican-appointed conservative justices, will knock that pillar down. NBC News reported this morning:

The Supreme Court will take up the most direct challenge to Roe v. Wade in nearly three decades when it hears oral arguments Wednesday over a Mississippi abortion law. The showdown, which centers on whether the Constitution provides a right to seek an abortion, focuses on a 2018 Mississippi law, blocked by lower federal courts, that would ban most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, allowing them only in medical emergencies or cases of severe fetal abnormality.

For those who may need a refresher, let's review how we arrived at this point.

After Donald Trump and GOP senators added new conservatives to the Supreme Court, several Republican-led state governments started advancing new abortion bans. Mississippi Republicans were especially aggressive on this front, approving the "Gestational Age Act," which banned abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

What followed was predictable. The Center for Reproductive Rights filed suit, challenging the constitutionality of the state measure; a district court agreed and struck down Mississippi's policy; and the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court's decision.

In May, the high court announced it would hear Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, creating the first reproductive rights showdown since conservatives gained a dominant, six-member majority on the nine-member bench.

Note, the Supreme Court actually struck down abortion restrictions in Louisiana last summer, in a 5-4 ruling in which Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the more progressive justices. But since then, Ruth Bader Ginsburg has passed and been replaced by Barrett, who hasn't been shy in her condemnations of abortion.

All of which suggests the Roe v. Wade precedent is facing a serious threat.

As a rule, it's best not to engage in too much guesswork when assessing justices' motivations, but I'll note for context that the Supreme Court often takes up cases when there are divisions among appellate courts on the same issue. That doesn't apply here: At least four justices agreed to take up this case because they wanted to, which probably shouldn't ease the minds of reproductive rights advocates.

There's also a political context to all of this. The justices will hear oral arguments in the case this morning and will likely issue a ruling in the early summer. Or put another way, we're faced with the possibility of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade — in part or in its entirety — just in time for the 2022 midterm elections.

For roughly a half-century, Republican politicians took advantage of a convenient political dynamic: GOP officials and candidates could rail against abortion rights, confident in the knowledge that Roe v. Wade was probably safe, and the status quo, which most voters were satisfied with, would remain intact for the foreseeable future.

What happens if/when Republicans become the dog that catches the car? In an election year? With polls showing broad support for the Roe v. Wade precedent?

Postscript: Oral arguments are scheduled to begin this morning around 10 a.m. eastern. The public will be able listen to the proceedings live through the Supreme Court's website, by clicking on the "live audio" link.