The Latest In The Fight Over Abortion Access

May 22, 2021
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to turn to the fight over abortion access in this country now. It went in a direction that anti-abortion activists have been hoping for and supporters of abortion rights have been dreading for some time. The Supreme Court said it would take up a major abortion case that could open the door to overturning Roe v. Wade. It was the type of state law that had previously been ruled unconstitutional by federal courts. Meanwhile, Texas Republicans are trying a novel legal strategy for banning most abortions, part of a parallel strategy to chip away at abortion rights.

NPR national correspondent Sarah McCammon has been following these developments and she's with us now. Hi, Sarah. Thanks for joining us.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Yeah. Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: So let's start with the Supreme Court. Remind us what's at stake in this case.

MCCAMMON: Right. So the Mississippi law that's in question here bans most abortions after 15 weeks. Lower courts have blocked it, but the Supreme Court said this week that they will review the case later this year. Now, the court has heard several cases related to abortion restrictions in the past several decades since Roe v. Wade in 1973 legalized abortion nationwide. But this is the first abortion ban the court is hearing. And upholding this Mississippi law would be a big change from recent precedent. Here's Nancy Northup with the Center for Reproductive Rights, which is fighting the Mississippi law. She talked with reporters this week.

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NANCY NORTHUP: The stakes here are extraordinarily high. If the court were to weaken the right to abortion, abortion would likely be banned. Banned entirely in half of the country. Many places in the South and the Midwest.

MCCAMMON: The question in this case is going to focus narrowly on fetal viability, of course, whether, you know, the stage at which a fetus could survive outside the womb. The court has said in the past that states can't place what's called an undue burden in the way of a woman seeking an abortion before a fetus could live outside her body. But by taking this case, at least some justices are signaling a readiness to hear arguments challenging that precedent.

MARTIN: Has the court given us any indication of how far it could go?

MCCAMMON: Well, of course, we don't know how any individual justice will rule, but this is arguably the most conservative court in decades. There are now three Trump appointees on the court, including Justice Amy Coney Barrett. That gives the court a 6-3 conservative majority. So a lot will depend on how the ruling is written, what the court decides to do in this case. Might they do away with the viability standard, since that's what they say they want to focus on? That is what many anti-abortion rights groups are hoping and what constraints might they leave on the ability of states to regulate abortion.

MARTIN: So I want to talk a bit more about Texas. A new law in that state is the latest attempt to ban abortion around six weeks of pregnancy. How does this fit into this larger battle over abortion rights that's playing out on the Supreme Court?

NORTHUP: So lots of states, conservative leaning states have been passing what supporters call heartbeat bills. These are the laws that ban abortion after any cardiac activity can be detected. That's usually about six weeks and many people don't know they're pregnant yet at that stage. Now, this law in Texas was signed by Governor Greg Abbott this week. That's despite the fact that a lot of similar laws have been struck down in recent years by federal courts. I talked to Rebecca Parma with Texas Right to Life about the strategy here, and she says it's fine with her if this law is challenged in court.

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REBECCA PARMA: That's always the intention for our legislation. We're not afraid to go to the courts, you know, since Roe v. Wade and legalized abortion came to us through the courts. That's how we're going to undo it. And so we want these bills to go through the court system and challenge Roe v. Wade to get to that point where it's undermined.

MCCAMMON: But, Michel, this bill is unique in that it's also trying a completely different new strategy. This law takes enforcement out of the hands of the state, out of public officials, and really puts it in the hands of individuals because it allows individuals to file lawsuits against anyone believed to have performed an illegal abortion or facilitated one. And that's a very unusual approach, one that abortion rights activists say they fear will have a chilling effect on both doctors and nonprofit groups that provide support to women seeking abortions. That's, of course, if it's allowed to take effect in September, it's very likely there will be legal challenges. It's not clear exactly how those will work in court because this law is written so differently than the other bill similar to it.

But, Michel, this is all part of a larger long-term strategy by abortion rights opponents to get legislation in front of the U.S. Supreme Court that could open the door to overturning Roe v. Wade and allowing states to pass more abortion restrictions.

MARTIN: That was Sarah McCammon, national correspondent for NPR. Sarah, thanks so much for talking to us.

MCCAMMON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.