Expert Commentary

Supreme Court Case: Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization: What you need to know

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Do recent SCOTUS decisions in Texas foreshadow how the Court will decide on the Gestational Age Act?



This fall, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) will announce when they will hear oral arguments for Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization. The court will examine a Mississippi law, known as the “Gestational Age Act,” originally passed in 2018, that sought to “limit abortions to fifteen weeks’ gestation except in a medical emergency or in cases of severe fetal abnormality.”1 This sets the stage for SCOTUS to make a major ruling on abortion, one which could affirm or upend landmark decisions and nearly 50 years of abortion legislative precedent. Additionally, SCOTUS’ recent decision to not intervene on Texas’ Senate Bill 8 (SB8), which essentially bans all abortions after 6 weeks’ gestational age, may foreshadow how this case will be decided. The current abortion restrictions in Texas and the implications of SB8 will be discussed in a forthcoming column.

SCOTUS and abortion rights

The decision to hear this case comes on the heels of another recent decision regarding a Louisiana law in June Medical Services v Russo. This case examined Louisiana Act 620, which would have required physicians to have hospital admitting privileges within 30 miles of where they provide abortion services.2 The law was deemed constitutionally invalid, with the majority noting the law would have drastically burdened a woman’s right to access abortion services. The Court ruled similarly in 2016 in Whole Women’s Health (WWH) v Hellerstedt, in which WWH challenged Texas House Bill 2, a nearly identical law requiring admitting privileges for abortion care providers. In both of these cases, SCOTUS pointed to precedent set by Southeastern Pennsylvania v Casey, which established that it is unconstitutional for a state to create an “undue burden” on a woman’s right to abortion prior to fetal viability.3 The precedent to this, Roe v Wade, and 5 decades of abortion legislation set may be upended by a SCOTUS decision this next term.

Dobbs v Jackson

On March 19, 2018, Mississippi enacted the “Gestational Age Act” into law. The newly enacted law would limit abortions to 15 weeks’ gestation except in a medical emergency or in cases of severe fetal anomalies. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the only licensed abortion provider in the state, challenged the constitutionality of the law with legal support from Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR). The US District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi granted summary judgement in favor of the clinic and placed an injunction on the law’s enforcement. The state appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld the district court decision in a 3-0 decision in November 2019. Mississippi appealed to the Supreme Court, with their petition focusing on multiple questions from the appeals process. After repeatedly rescheduling the case, and multiple reviews in conference, SCOTUS agreed to hear the case. Most recently, the state has narrowed its argument, changing course, and attacking Roe v Wade directly. In a brief submitted in July 2021, the state argues the court should hold that all pre-viability prohibitions on elective abortions are constitutional.

Interestingly, during this time the Mississippi legislature also passed a law, House Bill 2116, also known as the “fetal heartbeat bill,” banning abortion with gestational ages after detection of a fetal heartbeat. This was also challenged, deemed unconstitutional, and affirmed on appeal by the Fifth US Circuit Court.

While recent challenges have focused on the “undue burden” state laws placed on those trying to access abortion care, this case will bring the issue of “viability” and gestational age limits to the forefront.4,5 In addition to Roe v Wade, the Court will have the opportunity to reexamine other relevant precedent, such as Southeastern Pennsylvania v Casey, in considering the most recent arguments of the state. In this most recent brief, the state argues that the Court should, “reject viability as a barrier to prohibiting elective abortions” and that a “viability rule has no constitutional basis.” The state goes on to argue the “Constitution does not protect a right to abortion or limit States’ authority to restrict it.”6 The language and tone in this brief are more direct and aggressive than the states’ petition submitted last June.

However, the composition of the Court is different than in the past. This case will be argued with Justice Amy Coney Barrett seated in place of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was a strong advocate for women’s rights.7 She joins Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, also appointed by President Donald Trump and widely viewed as conservative judges, tipping the scales to a more conservative Supreme Court. This case will also be argued in a polarized political environment.8,9 Given the conservative Supreme Court in the setting of an increasingly politically charged environment, reproductive right advocates are understandably worried that members of the anti-abortion movement view this as an opportunity to weaken or remove federal constitutional protections for abortion.

Continue to: Potential outcome of Dobbs v Jackson...


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