Supreme Court justices will hear oral arguments Wednesday in a landmark case that will serve as the most significant test of abortion rights in years, stoking fear and hope on respective ends of the ideological spectrum.
The case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, will challenge the current standard by which states set their abortion restrictions.
With a 6-3 conservative majority deciding the case, opponents of abortion are hopeful the high court will revisit precedent that has solidified permissive abortion laws in the United States for decades.
Supporters of abortion rights, meanwhile, say the potential outcome of the case is why they’ve spent years warning against the prospect of a right-leaning bench.
Here is what to know ahead of Wednesday’s arguments.
Who is fighting?
The case is, at its core, a lawsuit between the last remaining abortion clinic in Mississippi and the state itself. Mississippi’s top health officer, Dr. Thomas Dobbs, has seen his name become shorthand for the landmark case after being named in the lawsuit against the state’s abortion ban.
Less than one hour after Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican, signed the abortion restriction into law in March 2018, Jackson Women’s Health Organization sued the state to stop its implementation.
The clinic, supported on the road to the Supreme Court by a significant number of abortion rights groups, successfully persuaded lower courts to pause the Mississippi law in multiple rulings in late 2018 and 2019.
Mississippi officials appealed those rulings last summer to the Supreme Court.
What are they fighting over?
In March 2018, Bryant signed the Gestational Age Act into law, effectively banning abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. While the law includes exceptions for medical emergencies, it does not permit abortions in cases of rape or incest.
Supporters of abortion rights quickly argued the law placed an unconstitutional burden on women in Mississippi who want to terminate their pregnancies.
At the time the Jackson clinic filed its lawsuit in the spring of 2018, according to local news reports, the Mississippi law created the shortest timeline in the country for obtaining abortions.
Texas now has the shortest window for abortions in the country, having imposed a ban in the fall on abortions after doctors can detect a fetal heartbeat, which is typically around six weeks of pregnancy. Texas lawmakers structured that law differently than Mississippi’s by asking private citizens to enforce it through litigation, so their ban has survived court challenges that the Mississippi law so far has not.
Why is that important?
The larger question at the heart of Dobbs is whether bans on abortion before the age of viability are constitutional.
That means the Supreme Court will revisit the legality of restricting the procedure prior to the point a baby can live outside the womb, which has been thought to be between 23 and 24 weeks of gestation.
The most famous abortion case on record, Roe v. Wade, established in 1973 a precedent of protecting the legal right to an abortion before the age of viability. The benchmark was set by justices and their staff and not requested by those arguing in the case, although it has remained the standard against which all abortion laws are measured ever since.
Science has shifted the age of viability significantly since that ruling, however. While babies could generally not survive outside the womb if born before 28 weeks when Roe was decided, by the 1990s, babies born around 24 weeks, roughly a full month earlier, had a reasonable chance of survival as a result of medical advances.
Another landmark abortion case, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, upheld in 1992 the “essential holding” of abortion rights before the age of viability established in Roe, despite the Supreme Court at that time hosting a majority of Republican-appointed justices.
Casey also established the “undue burden” standard for evaluating abortion restrictions, meaning courts had to consider whether any future rules regarding abortions, whether those be mandatory waiting periods for mothers seeking the procedure or restrictions on when in a pregnancy a mother can obtain an abortion, placed an unreasonable obstacle in front of women.
Others argue Roe was incorrectly decided at the time and upheld primarily due to misplaced deference to precedent, which anti-abortion activists argue the Supreme Court should now correct.
What are abortion rights advocates saying?
Supporters of abortion rights warn a broad ruling in favor of Mississippi in Dobbs would pave the way for the complete reversal of reproductive rights in the U.S.
They point to the 14th Amendment, guaranteeing all Americans “equal protection of the laws,” as the constitutional underpinnings of abortion rights established in Roe and upheld in Casey.
Because abortion laws primarily affect women, some scholars have argued that laws such as Mississippi's deserve more intense review to ensure women aren’t subjected to more societal burdens than men as a result.
Other groups have said Mississippi’s law and the similar ones Dobbs could enable in the future would disproportionately affect marginalized groups, furthering what they describe as the ban’s harm.
What are anti-abortion advocates saying?
Opponents of abortion are expressing optimism that Dobbs will provide the clearest opportunity in years for justices to revisit the jurisprudence that shaped previous abortion decisions.
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Advocates are taking particular aim at the viability standard, arguing it is outdated, arbitrary, and immoral.
Some groups supporting Mississippi’s defense of the law note that scientific advances should expand the state’s interest over the protection of a fetus, including the point at which scientists now know fetuses can experience pain.