Supreme Court Overturns Roe v. Wade, Ending the Constitutional Right to an Abortion

More than half of US states have laws restricting or banning abortion.

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Dan Avery
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Abortion rights activists holding signs in front of the Supreme Court

Abortion rights activists demonstrate in front of the US Supreme Court on June 15 in Washington, DC.

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The Supreme Court on Friday overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision guaranteeing a woman's constitutional right to have an abortion, in a ruling that sent shock waves through the nation.

The court's decision doesn't criminalize abortion at the federal level but returns jurisdiction to individual states. About half the states have laws restricting or banning abortion, and trigger laws that prohibit the procedure are expected to take effect soon. New legislation surrounding the issue is also inevitable.

In the majority opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health, issued Friday morning, Justice Samuel Alito wrote, "It is time to heed the Constitution and return the issue of abortion to the people's elected representatives." The court's conservative majority said the Roe decision was "egregiously wrong from the start" in recognizing a constitutional right to abortion and said that error had been perpetuated by the court in the decades since. 

The court voted 6-3 to side with Mississippi in the Dobbs case, but 5-4 on the broader question of whether to overrule Roe v. Wade.

Alito was joined by fellow conservative Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett. Chief Justice John Roberts, also a conservative, filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, meaning he agreed the Mississippi law should be upheld, but he didn't support eliminating the right to an abortion all together. 

"Both the Court's opinion and the dissent display a relentless freedom from doubt on the legal issue that I cannot share," Roberts wrote. He added that the court should "adhere closely 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."

Liberal Justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer dissented and called out the majority for a "cavalier approach to overturning this Court's precedents."

"Whatever the exact scope of the coming laws, one result of today's decision is certain: the curtailment of women's rights, and of their status as free and equal citizens," wrote the dissenting justices. 

Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health looked at the Gestational Age Act, a 2018 Mississippi law banning most abortions after the first 15 weeks of pregnancy, much earlier than the precedent established by Roe v. Wade and subsequent cases.

It makes exceptions for medical emergency or severe fetal abnormality but not for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest. 

Read more: What Is Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization?

The US District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi ruled the law was unconstitutional in November 2018, a decision unanimously upheld by the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals a little more than a year later. 

In October 2021, Mississippi appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear arguments.  

A draft of Alito's opinion was leaked in early May, indicating that the court was likely to strike down Roe.

On Friday, US President Joe Biden condemned Friday's decision, saying the court is "literally taking America back 150 years." He added that his administration would defend the right of women to travel to other states for abortions and have access to medications. 

"As the attorney general has made clear, women must remain free to travel safely to another state to seek care they need," Biden said during remarks. "If any state or local official -- high or low -- tries to interfere with a woman exercising her basic right to travel, I will do everything in my power to fight that deeply un-American attack."

In a statement posted to Twitter shortly after the opinion was released, Planned Parenthood criticized the decision but vowed to continue fighting.

"We know what politicians want because it's already happening: to ban abortion state by state -- & eventually a national ban," reads a tweet from the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the nonprofit's advocacy arm. "But, like generations before us, we'll fight for each other."

A June 13 poll from the Pew Research Center found that 61% of Americans believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, compared with 37% who think it should be criminalized in most circumstances.

The Supreme Court's decision on abortion has raised concern that the court could revisit other decisions in the future, including on contraception and same-sex marriage. 

In a concurring opinion, Thomas wrote that the high court should do away with the doctrine of "substantive due process," specifically calling out three cases to reconsider: Griswold v. Connecticut, Lawrence v. Texas, and Obergefell v. Hodges. These earlier rulings established the right to contraception, the right for adults to engage in consensual same-sex intimacy and the right to same-sex marriage.

CNET's Carrie Mihalcik contributed to this report.