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June 23, 2022

What Will Happen to Abortion Rights if Roe v. Wade is Undermined?

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On May 22, 2022, a draft opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health that would overturn the Roe v. Wade decision was “leaked” and circulated widely. Roe v. Wade is the Supreme Court case which legalized abortion in 1973. Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health is a case about abortion access that is being decided by the Supreme Court in 2022. When a document is “leaked,” confidential or secret information comes out for the public to see. When this leak happened, the public was able to read the 98-page draft decision (or opinion) written by Justice Samuel Alito.

The draft decision suggests that the majority of the Supreme Court will vote to overturn the constitutional right to have an abortion. If that is the ultimate decision the Supreme Court reaches (likely to be announced in June 2022), states will then have the ability to ban abortion entirely. If this decision comes to fruition, almost two dozen states are likely to ban abortion.

What is Roe v. Wade?

Roe v. Wade is the legal case that established a constitutional right to have an abortion, which is the intentional termination of a pregnancy. Roe v. Wade was decided by a 7-2 majority of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973, finding that a woman’s right to have an abortion is part of the Constitutionally protected right to privacy. A state that generally bans abortion without considering the stage of pregnancy or other issues violates that right. Jane Roe, for whom the case was argued, was a pseudonym (a made-up name to protect someone’s privacy) for Norma McCorvey, who was 22, unmarried, unemployed and pregnant for the third time in 1969 when she sought to have an abortion in Texas. Abortion was illegal in Texas at the time.

Since the 1973 Supreme Court ruling, there have been additional court cases that added more restrictions on legal abortion but did not overturn Roe v. Wade. Further, over the years some states have passed laws that regulated and limited whether, when and under what circumstances someone may obtain an abortion. Examples of these limitations include: restricting private insurance medical coverage of abortions, allowing individual healthcare providers to refuse to participate in an abortion, prohibiting the use of state funds to cover abortions, requiring a person seeking an abortion to wait a specified period of time, requiring intrusive and unnecessary medical procedures before getting an abortion, imposing unnecessary requirements on medical providers, and requiring some type of parental consent in a minor’s decision to have an abortion.

What happened before Roe v. Wade?

Before the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in 1973, getting an abortion was difficult and dangerous, with potential long-term and dire consequences. The 19th News writes:

Prior to Roe v. Wade, people seeking abortions were forced to find clandestine clinics, borrow spare cash and travel hundreds of miles—sometimes under cover of darkness—for risky procedures that they learned about through word of mouth. There was the lingering worry that a procedure might not work. And, if it did, that it could result in medical complications — or even death.

The Impact of Overturning or Undermining Roe v. Wade

The right to abortion impacts those who are able to get pregnant, including cisgender women, transgender and nonbinary people and others. Decisions about whether or not to have an abortion can also affect the lives of the sexual or romantic partners of those who are pregnant.

Here are some specific consequences of overturning Roe v. Wade that will impact individuals and society.

  • Immediate abortion bans in some states

    If Roe v. Wade is overturned, there are states that will ban abortions immediately. Nearly two dozen states are likely to ban abortions or severely restrict access. Thirteen states have "trigger laws" which means that these bans go into effect right away if Roe v. Wade is overturned. Without legal abortion in these states, pregnant people will have to travel to a state where abortion is legal. Since many people seeking abortion care have limited financial resources, it will be difficult or impossible to travel long distances, take off from work and find childcare.

  • Entire regions of the country will ban abortion

    This map shows the states likely to ban abortion and how they are concentrated in certain regions of the country (e.g., Southern, Midwestern and Great Plains states). Therefore, even driving to a close or bordering state to get abortion care will be overwhelmingly difficult.

  • Disproportionate impact on people of color

    People of color, already disproportionately impacted by poverty, lack of quality health care access, and racism in the health care system will face more harmful consequences than others. CDC data from 2019 reveals that Black women have the highest rate of abortions (23.9 per 1000 women), Latin American women had 11.7 per 1,000 and white women had the lowest rate at 6.6 abortions per 1000 women. In addition, Black and Latin American women are more likely than white women to have health complications during pregnancy and childbirth and Black women die of maternal causes at almost three times the rate of white women. In some states, exceptions for the “life of” rather than the “health of the pregnant person are written into the trigger laws. There will also be mental health impacts and consequences if abortion care is banned.

  • Increase in unsafe abortions

    The abortion procedures currently available are very safe, with only rare complications. However, if pregnant people don’t have access to safe abortion care, history has shown that some will use unsafe or dangerous methods to end their pregnancies. While the FDA approved abortion pills in 2000, several states have banned or restricted this treatment for abortion care.

  • Financial impact

    Limiting or banning abortion care has negative economic impacts on individuals and society. One reason people choose abortion is because they can’t afford to have and raise a child at the time, can’t afford to be out of the workforce, are in school to improve their economic situation, etc. Not having access to abortion care and being forced to take a pregnancy to term has an impact on participation in the labor force, wages and levels of poverty. People who can’t access abortion care are more likely to experience poverty, leave the workforce, raise children in poverty and are more likely to rely on social services like Medicaid. This has ripple effects on the economy, according to policy experts and economists.   

  • Violation of religious freedom

    There are many religions that uphold the right to legal abortion. Since the draft decision was leaked, religious groups and individuals of various faiths have asserted their support for abortion rights, correcting the assumption that all people of faith want abortion to be banned. Religions that are pro-choice believe in prioritizing the life, health and mental health of the pregnant person and do not believe life begins at conception among other reasons. These abortion restrictions and bans are based on the premise that life begins at conception, a belief that does not align with many religions.

  • Undermining of equity and civil rights

    Taking away a Constitutional right that was established fifty years ago is a step backwards. Many people, especially in certain regions of the country, will no longer have the right to a safe and legal abortion. Abortion bans will impact groups of people in our society who are already marginalized by reducing their access to legal, medically supervised abortions, economic opportunity and safety. Reproductive freedom is a core civil right. When people are prevented from making their own reproductive choices and exercising decision-making autonomy, they are more vulnerable to bias and discrimination which limits them from equal participation in social and economic life.

Public Opinion on Abortion Rights

There are a variety of reasons that people are for or against legal abortion.

Public support for legal abortion has remained steady over the past few years with the majority in favor of legal abortion. In a 2022 Pew survey, 61% of respondents said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 37% say it should be illegal in all or most cases. Majorities of both women and men support legal abortion; women are slightly more likely than men to support legal abortion (63% vs. 58%). There are religious differences among those who support legal abortion; seventy-four percent of white evangelical Protestants (74%) think abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. By contrast, 84% of religiously unaffiliated people say abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

Some of the reasons people cite for being against abortion include: the belief that life begins at conception and therefore abortion causes pain or is considered murder; the position that reducing access to abortion decreases demand for abortions; the sense that abortion can negatively impact the emotional and physical health of those who get an abortion; and the point of view that the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision was wrong and should be overturned.

Some of the reasons cited by those who are pro-choice include: the belief that women should have control over their bodies and this includes their reproductive rights; the concept that “personhood” begins after a fetus becomes “viable” (i.e., is able to survive outside the womb) or after birth — not at conception; the understanding that abortion is a safe medical procedure that saves lives; the position that having an abortion is a healthcare decision that should be made between a pregnant person and their medical professional, partner, family member, or friend. Because the Supreme Court declared abortion to be a fundamental right guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution almost fifty years ago, many believe it is and should remain a fundamental right.

Engage in the Conversation

Age: 12 and up

Questions to Start the Conversation

  • What did you already know about Roe v. Wade and abortion rights? What more do you want to know?
  • What have you heard from your friends, family and online about the possibility of an abortion ban?
  • What are your thoughts and feelings about Roe v. Wade and abortion rights?
  • Why do you think certain states want to do away with or limit abortion rights?
  • What do you think will happen if Roe v. Wade is undermined or overturned?

Questions to Dig Deeper

(See the Additional Resources section for articles and information that address these questions.)

  • Do you have a position on abortion and other reproductive rights? What more do you want to know to help inform your thinking?
  • For people who disagree with overturning Roe v. Wade, what do you think they should do to make their opinions known?
  • Do you live in a state where abortion may become illegal? What do you think will happen if abortion is banned in your state?

Ideas for Taking Action

Ask: What can we do to help? What individual and group actions can help make a difference?

  • Educate yourself and others about reproductive rights, Roe v. Wade, civil rights and religious freedom. Share information with friends, family and peers — on social media or by helping to organize an educational event in your school or community.
  • Find out more about your state’s laws on reproductive and abortion rights. If you are concerned about your state restricting or banning abortion and want to express your views, reach out to your state representative or your member of Congress.  
  • Get involved in activism in your school, community or state. There are many organizations and websites that are working to support reproductive freedom for all.

Republished with permission from ADL.

The Supreme Court: Balancing the Branches

Share My Lesson has free, tailored preK-12 resources to ensure your students leave your classroom equipped with a deeper knowledge of civics and government to think critically about today's toughest issues.

ADL is a leading anti-hate organization. Founded in 1913 in response to an escalating climate of anti-Semitism and bigotry, its timeless mission is to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all.

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