With Roe v. Wade Overturned: D.C.’s Abortion Debates Heat Up

Battle lines have formed in the wake of the Supreme Court’s June 24 ruling overturning the landmark 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision guaranteeing Americans the constitutional right to abortion. At the center of the storm, the nation’s capital and the U.S. Supreme Court building at 1 First St. NE. where protests —  some in favor of the ruling but most opposed — have been raging since Friday.

While a leaked draft of the ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court surfaced in May, creating a speculative firestorm as to the court’s intentions, seismic shockwaves were still felt across the nation’s political landscape this past Friday when the court upheld by a 6-3 vote a 2018 Mississippi law banning abortions after more than 15 weeks of pregnancy, in the case of Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

By a narrow 5-4 margin with the court’s conservative members Alito (writing the majority opinion), Thomas, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh and Barrett —  the last three, appointees of former President Trump —  the court went further and overturned Roe vs. Wade itself.

Chief Justice Roberts, however, sided with the liberal minority opposed to overturning the half-century standing precedent allowing women the “right to choose.” He implored, “Surely we should adhere to principles of judicial restraint here, where the broader path the Court chooses entails repudiating a constitutional right we have not only previously recognized, but also expressly reaffirmed applying the doctrine of stare decisis.”

Sign outside the Supreme Court on June 24. Photo by Jeff Malet.

Instead of federal protection of abortion as a fundamental right, the question of abortion’s legality now devolves back to the states. Prior to Dobbs, 13 states had passed “trigger laws” outlawing abortion immediately upon Roe’s overturning and 13 more states appear likely to follow in similarly banning abortion.

Polls conducted by CBS News immediately following the Supreme Court’s ruling to overturn Roe found that 59 percent of Americans “disapproved of the ruling,” including 67 percent of women, while 78 percent of Republicans favored the decision as opposed to 83 percent of Democrats who disapproved.

Never in American history has the Supreme Court repealed a right expressly granted under the U.S. Constitution or set by prior Supreme Court precedents. On Friday, President Biden reacted with shock to the scope of SCOTUS’s decision, calling it a “sad day for the court and for our country.” “Today,” he said, “the Supreme Court of the United States expressly took away a constitutional right for the American people… The health and life of [the] women of our nation are now at risk.”

The New York Times noted that the United States had “joined a handful of countries, like Poland, Russia and Nicaragua, that have rolled back access” to abortion in the last few decades.

Protester dressed as a “Handmaiden” with U.S. Supreme Court in background. Photo by Chris Jones.

While many anti-abortion proponents focus on the sanctity of the life of the unborn fetus and options such as child adoption that can be taken in lieu of abortion, abortion-rights proponents emphasize not only bodily autonomy but the potential risks to maternal health that could follow if laws are passed restricting competent medical treatments in case of pregnancy complications – such as an ectopic pregnancy – or miscarriages that are often similar to abortion procedures. Critics of abortion tend to decry so-called widespread “abortion on demand” practices, while abortion rights proponents emphasize the extent to which abortion bans tend to jeopardize the health of marginalized and poor women, girls and pregnant people who select to terminate pregnancies regardless of existing laws but don’t have access to proper medical care during the procedure.

Global Reactions

In front of the Supreme Court on June 24, TV reporters from around the world set up cameras on the elevated grassy embankment of the U.S. Capitol grounds to record the ongoing SCOTUS protests and cover the breaking constitutional news from the United States. World leaders also issued statements from their respective capitals to express their reactions. In Italy, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the president of the Pontifical Academy for Life praised the ruling. “In the face of Western society that is losing its passion for life, this act is a powerful invitation to reflect together on the serious and urgent issue of human generativity and the conditions that make it possible.” Curiously, however, Pope Francis has yet to tweet or say anything specific publicly about the ruling.

Cardinal Wilton Gregory, archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, issued a statement following the Dobbs ruling. “Human life is precious and sacred. With the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, now we can begin to heal those divisions that have so diminished us as a people and as a society,” he said.

In Great Britain, conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson decried SCOTUS’s ruling, calling it a “big step backwards.” Prime Minister Trudeau of Canada tweeted, “The news coming out of the United States is horrific. My heart goes out to the millions of American women who are now set to lose their legal right to an abortion. I can’t imagine the fear and anger you are feeling right now.” French President Macron tweeted: “I wish to express my solidarity with the women whose liberties are being undermined by the Supreme Court of the United States.”

In the U.S. Congress, reactions to the ruling have fallen along party lines. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called the ruling “an historic victory for the Constitution,” while Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) warned, “Be aware of this: the Republicans are plotting a nationwide abortion ban. They cannot be allowed to have a majority in the Congress to do that, but that’s their goal.”

On “Meet the Press,” progressive star, Rep. Alexander Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.),  slammed conservatives on the Supreme Court who pledged during their nomination hearings to respect long-standing legal precedent but nonetheless joined the court and voted quickly to overturn Roe. Lying to congressional members, she declared, is “an impeachable offense.” Surprisingly, Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia who often sides with Republicans and against progressives agreed somewhat with Ocasio-Cortez. “I trusted Justice Gorsuch and Justice Kavanaugh when they testified under oath that they also believed Roe vs. Wade was settled legal precedent and I’m alarmed they chose to reject the stability the ruling has provided for generations of Americans,” he told National Public Radio.

Local Reactions

While protesters began to swarm the Supreme Court building on Friday, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and several D.C. Council members held a press conference, sponsored by Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington D.C., in response to the overturning of Roe vs. Wade. From each of the speakers, the message and tone were similar. Suppressed rage must be met with staunch resolution and a willingness to fight back to protect democratic rights.

“It’s a sad day in this country,” said Dr. Laura Meyers, President of Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington (PPMW) as she introduced the mayor. “Six justices overturned 50 years of legal precedent with a devastating decision that strips away a federal protection to legal abortion affecting 36 million women and others who can become pregnant in the 26 states that have banned abortion or are poised to do so…. We know that without reproductive freedom women cannot fully participate in society. And how dare they say to me, to my daughters, to our daughters, to our granddaughters, that we are not full citizens with the rights and protections of men in this country…. We will not back down. We call on everyone hearing this message to stand with us in this terrible moment.”

“We’ve been promised by candidates of the Supreme Court who are now members of the court that Roe was settled law,” began Mayor Bowser. “We learned that their decision today was in fact real, [however], and that women and girls now and in the future will have fewer rights than our mothers. We know that this is not a view held by a majority of Americans who believe that a woman should have autonomy over her own body and we agree that in Washington, D.C. we are a pro-choice city. Nothing has changed in Washington, D.C. Abortion remains legal. But women and girls, we know, are worried. We are worried because we know we’re vulnerable as a jurisdiction because of our lack of statehood. But we will keep fighting.”

“We know how to fight to protect ourselves and protect our citizens,” Bowser continued. “But we also know that this Congress can make decisions to pass laws to keep women and our rights safe. We stand shoulder to shoulder with generations of women who fought to have control over our bodies and our futures and we won’t back down. We also heard an ominous signal from a member of the court that said not only do you have to worry about your bodily autonomy when it comes to abortion care but also contraception. We know that they will attack the right to privacy that has extended the right to same-sex marriage in our country. We know that we are fighting not just for the rights of women and girls but we’re fighting for our very democracy. The fight is urgent.”

Mayor Muriel Bowser. Photo by Philip Bermingham (2019).

Bowser then introduced D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton who emphasized the District’s vulnerability against the whims of Congress and difficulty enshrining abortion rights into law. “We are still subservient to the House and to the Senate. I am calling on Congress to immediately codify the right to an abortion in federal law. That is the very least the District needs to do to save this city from what will surely be an attempt by Republicans in the Congress to move first on the District of Columbia to make sure that abortions are not available for women in our city. We always have more work cut out for us than other jurisdictions, but I assure you that I am up to the task. There’s a lot to fight for here and I’m ready for that fight.”

At-Large Council member Christina Henderson spoke about having to “step away” from her two daughters of  9-months and 3 years to absorb the news of Roe’s overturning on Friday morning. “I had to put them down… because even though we had the draft leak opinion, I don’t think anything can prepare women or men for what it felt like this morning for a majority of the Supreme Court to tell women of this country essentially ‘you’re second-class citizens.’ ”

“This ruling is cruel,” said At-Large Council member Elissa Silverman. “And, it’s counter to our country’s principles… This ruling is a threat to women and men and families across the country, but I think in particular to our city.”

“I was really keen to get here to express my outrage,” said Ward 3 Council member Mary Cheh. “We are about to enter into decades of darkness with this court. And don’t be fooled. We’re told, ‘Okay, it’s just abortion.’ Don’t you believe it! The very reasoning of the case —  and I spent a lot of time teaching constitutional law — means that many other liberties will be in jeopardy…. And how callous and how venal these men in the majority are. They tell women, no problem, you can just give the baby up. Can you believe that? These are Taliban judges in terms of how they treat women and women’s bodies… We’re facing decades of darkness. You know that the Supreme Court has never taken back a Constitutional right… This crowd is dangerous.”

“Nearly one in four people who can become pregnant in America will have an abortion by age 45,” said Takina Wilson, CEO of PPMW. “It’s common and it happens. This ruling is mostly impacting Black and Brown individuals, women, children, trans and non-binary folks, people on low incomes and people who live in rural communities where healthcare can be extremely hard to access.”

Representing Ward 2 on the D.C. Council, Brooke Pinto expressed outrage at the ruling as well. “Like women and men in our city and across our country and really our world, I am mad and angry. Because America is supposed to stand for more than this. It’s supposed to stand for human dignity and human rights… We demand from all of our leaders across the country that they stand up and show support because there is something we can do about this to bring about change and we have to vote for candidates who are not going to allow this abuse of our dignity and our human rights to continue.”

“For half a century, Roe v. Wade recognized the constitutional right to abortion in this country. But now, the Supreme Court has revoked that right, leaving millions of patients and potential patients in its wake who will no longer be able to access critical health care that will have substantial impacts on their lives,” the D.C. Office of the Attorney General Karl Racine said in a statement. And the AG’s office “will do everything in [their] power to fiercely defend and strengthen the right to abortion in the District so that everyone can create their family how and when they choose. We will stand up for the rights of District residents and those across the country who come here to access care. And we will defend abortion providers who offer needed care to support the health, safety, and dignity of their patients.”





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