By Kate Scanlon
WASHINGTON — Prior to the first anniversary of a landmark decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn its prior abortion precedent, pro-life activists lauded legislation passed in multiple states while advocating for additional support services for women and families facing unplanned pregnancies.
The Supreme Court issued its historic decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization June 24, 2022, little more than a month after Politico leaked an earlier draft of Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion. The leak caused a public firestorm before the court issued its official ruling and is seen as the most significant breach of the court’s confidentiality in its history.
The Dobbs case involved a Missisppi law banning abortion after 15 weeks, in which the state directly challenged the high court’s previous abortion-related precedents in Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey. The Supreme Court ultimately overturned its own prior rulings, undoing nearly a half-century of its own precedent on the issue.
Under Roe and its ensuing precedents, states were generally barred from restricting abortion prior to viability, or the point at which a child could survive outside the womb. When Roe was issued in 1973, fetal viability was considered to be 28 weeks’ gestation, but 50 years later, estimates now are generally considered to be 23-24 weeks, with some estimates as low as 22 weeks.
While supporters often described Roe as settled law, opponents argued the court in 1973 improperly legalized abortion nationwide, a matter that should have been left to legislators in Congress or state governments. Many, including the Catholic Church, also argued that abortion is murder and its legalization should be opposed on moral grounds. Opponents of the ruling challenged it for decades, both in courts and in the public square, such as the national March for Life held annually in Washington.
In a June 6 statement marking the first anniversary of Dobbs, Bishop Michael F. Burbidge of Arlington, Virginia, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, said, “We have much to celebrate.”
“By the grace of God, the nearly fifty-year reign of national abortion on demand has been put to an end. Roe v. Wade — a seemingly insurmountable blight on our nation — is no more!” Bishop Burbidge said. “Over the past year, while some states have acted to protect preborn children, others have tragically moved to enshrine abortion in law — enacting extreme abortion policies that leave children vulnerable to abortion, even until the moment of birth. … The work that lies ahead continues to be not just changing laws but also helping to change hearts, with steadfast faith in the power of God to do so.”
Bishop Burbidge said the “task before us begins with the knowledge of the truth and our courage to speak it and to live it with compassion,” calling for the faithful to show “radical solidarity” with women facing an unexpected or challenging pregnancy.
“In this shifting political landscape, we persist confidently in our efforts to defend life,” he said. “The work that lies ahead continues to be not just changing laws but also helping to change hearts, with steadfast faith in the power of God to do so. The task before us begins with our knowledge of the truth and our courage to speak it and to live it with compassion.”
Jeanne Mancini, president of the March for Life organization, said the first post-Roe year has been “amazing in so many ways” in reducing abortion. Mancini said the sheer overturn of Roe itself “is a huge accomplishment.”
“I’m not sure many of us thought that would happen in our lifetime,” she said.
But, Mancini said, the year following the Dobbs decision has come with many challenges and also introduced “an element of confusion.”
In the months following Dobbs, some women in states that restricted abortion said they were denied care for miscarriages or ectopic pregnancies, or other adverse pregnancy outcomes as a result of unclear abortion legislation.
Pro-life activists said pro-life bills restricting abortion contained exceptions for such circumstances, while opponents claimed bill texts insufficiently addressed those circumstances or lacked clarity on exceptions.
Public support for legal abortion also increased after Roe was overturned, according to multiple polls conducted in the months following the Dobbs ruling.
“I think the overturning of Roe has revealed how conflicted our culture is about abortion,” Mancini said. “It shows me our work is still very much cut out for us.”
May 2023 polling from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 42% of U.S. adults said the Democratic Party best represents their views on abortion, while 26% said the same of the Republican Party. A substantial portion, 32%, said neither major political party best represents their views on abortion.
In the November elections following Dobbs, voters in states across the U.S. either rejected ballot measures meant to restrict abortion, or voted to codify measures protecting the procedure.
“We’ve got a long way to go toward the day abortion is unthinkable,” Mancini acknowledged.
The way forward, she said, must be to “lean into this and do it with a lot of love.”
“And then also, of course, to emphasize the truth that pro-life is pro-woman, whether it’s the support of a pregnancy care center or funding support at the state level.”
Since the Dobbs decision, more than 20 states have moved to ban or restrict abortion. Some states like Texas implemented a near-total ban on the procedure at any point in pregnancy, while others, such as Georgia, banned the procedure after six weeks, effectively before many women know they are pregnant and thus banning most abortions in practice. Other states, including North Carolina, have approved restrictions at later gestational points in an unborn child’s development, such as North Carolina, where a 12-week abortion ban is scheduled to go into effect in July.
Bans or other limitations are blocked pending legal challenges in South Carolina, Arizona, Indiana, North Dakota, Ohio, Utah and Wyoming. South Carolina’s bill, for example, would ban abortion after six weeks if it remains in effect; a judge put a temporary hold on it one day after Gov. Henry McMaster signed it into law, asking the state Supreme Court to review the law. The state’s high court previously struck down similar legislation.
Meanwhile, some other states have moved to keep or expand abortion access within their borders, including Oregon, which allocated about $15 million to pay for travel expenses for women who come to the state seeking abortions. California enacted legislation its Gov. Gavin Newsom said would shield patients and providers who travel from other states to perform or undergo abortions in California from laws in other states. New York enacted similar legislation.
Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa, founder and president of New Wave Feminists, said the U.S. birth rate may be one indicator of the long-term impact of the end of Roe.
But the U.S. may already be seeing the effects of the fall of Roe without a substantial shift in the culture toward life. Abortion pills, Herndon-De La Rosa said, are representing a higher share of U.S. abortions, and their impact is still being tallied amid ongoing legal disputes.
“It can feel very defeating sometimes,” she said. “Like that scene from Jurassic Park where they say ‘life always finds a way,’ sometimes it feels like abortion will always find a way, because when a woman is is desperate and terrified and that second line shows up (on a pregnancy test), I don’t know how much laws make a difference if she feels she has no other option.”
Abortion, she said, is a matter of both supply and demand.
“What are we doing to address the demand side?” Herndon-De La Rosa asked, arguing for further increases in affordable housing and child care.
Herndon-De La Rosa said that pro-life bills also need to be crafted carefully so health providers are not discouraged from timely medical interventions to save the lives of women during pregnancy.
The bills cannot “put women’s lives at risk, intentionally or not,” she said.
Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats For Life of America, co-authored a policy proposal in January alongside Catherine Glenn Foster, president and CEO of Americans United for Life, about making birth free to mothers. Day said the pro-life movement should both seek to address “the needs of women and on bringing the U.S. more in line with Europe as far as limitations on abortion,” noting many European nations limit elective abortion to the first trimester.
“I think there’s a lot to be optimistic about with the pregnancy-support side of things,” Day said, adding that states including Mississippi, the impetus for Dobbs, also expanded resources for pregnant women and new mothers in its abortion restrictions.
Day said a challenge for the pro-life movement is a negative public perception of early limitation bills, which is all the more reason for pro-lifers to “really focus on more than just the limitation.”
“It’s complicated,” Day said. “It’s complicated in part because the Supreme Court made a law (in Roe), and so we’re just trying to move the legislative duties back where they’re supposed to be.”