CHRO Statement Condemning the Supreme Court Ruling Overturning Roe v. Wade
On June 24, 2022, the United States Supreme Court officially issued a ruling in Thomas E. Dobbs, State Health Officer of the Mississippi Department of Health, et al. v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, refusing to strike down a Mississippi state law banning abortion after the fifteenth week of pregnancy. In so doing, the Court overturned its 1973 landmark decision of Roe v. Wade, which had clearly established that access to abortion was protected under the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. The decision in Dobbs rolls back essential legal protections for reproductive agency on which women have relied for over fifty years and threatens a broad range of other civil rights.
The Mississippi law upheld by the Court’s decision in Dobbs bans anyone from obtaining or performing an abortion “if the probable gestational age” of the fetus is “determined to be greater than fifteen (15) weeks,” with no exceptions for rape or incest, even for minors. Prior to this decision, the Court’s holding in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, which built on Roe, had recognized an unburdened right to abortion at least through the point of “viability”, which occurs at about 24 weeks gestational age.
In making its decision, the Court selectively recounted the history of abortion in the United States, concluding that the Roe Court was mistaken in 1973 when it found that abortion was “deeply rooted in [the] Nation’s history and tradition.” Relying on laws from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – laws that were established before Black people and all women even had the right to vote – a history of policing the bodies of women that left them open to prosecution for having an abortion if, and only if, men wanted to enforce those laws. This distorted interpretation led the Court to conclude that the right to abortion is not a fundamental right deserving of protection, even though the majority of Americans (approximately 2/3) today support legal access to abortion.
The Court deferred to its majority religious viewpoint about “when life begins”, which is not held by members of all religious faiths. While some religions believe that life begins at conception or fertilization, others believe that life begins with the first breath outside of the uterus. Some religions focus on the life or health of the mother as paramount over the potential life of a fetus. This decision puts the potential life of the fetus ahead of any risk to the life or health of the mother. The de facto result of this decision will be to elevate the views of one religion over the religious and personal convictions of others.
Moreover, the decision threatens other rights that are not explicitly listed in the U.S. Constitution but have been found by previous decisions of the Supreme Court to be “rooted in the Nation’s history and tradition”. In his concurrence, Justice Thomas specifically states that the Court should revisit the Court’s previous decisions confirming the right to privacy and contraception access (Griswold v. Connecticut); the right to engage in private, consensual sexual acts and same-sex intimacy (Lawrence v. Texas); and, the right to same-sex marriage (Obergefell v. Hodges). These important rights were established as fundamental in prior cases because they stem from the guarantee of liberty enshrined in the Fourteenth Amendment. In addition to explicitly calling out these decisions in the concurrence, the majority opinion in Dobbs attacks the broad interpretation of liberty supporting them, reducing it to improper judicial activism. Given that the liberty clause has been used to expand civil rights in multiple contexts, the consequences of gutting this provision are far reaching and threaten us all.
While the decision does not go so far as to actively criminalize or outlaw abortion at the federal level, it opens the door for states to do so. Given that thirteen states have passed “trigger laws” – laws banning abortion that have gone into immediate effect with the overturning of Roe – this decision has immediate consequences for the individuals living in these states. Disturbingly, many of these “trigger laws” carry penalties of lengthy prison sentences and large fines if one is found to have undergone, performed, or assisted in performing an abortion, with few exceptions for cases of rape or incest. Experts predict that dozens of states could have near to total bans on abortion within the coming months. Returning this matter to the whims of individual states leaves the fate of women, their bodily autonomy, and their futures in a very capricious balance.
Here in Connecticut, there has been a statutory right to abortion services since 1990. Just this year, the Constitution State took steps to strengthen protections not just for residents seeking abortion care but also for those who reside outside the state. Effective July 1, 2022, Connecticut’s new law, Public Act 22-19, is designed to protect people who provide abortion services or receive support to obtain the procedure within the state and then are sued in another state. Public Act 22-19 also prohibits state agencies from participating in interstate investigations and prosecutions and court officers from issuing subpoenas related to abortion services in the state. Additionally, it expands who can perform abortions within the state.
Today is a reminder that civil rights are not automatically granted or forever enshrined; there is not a status quo we can reach and rest on. Civil rights must be constantly protected and advanced through dedication and effort. The Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities protects individuals from discrimination on the basis of sex, gender, and pregnancy related conditions. In furtherance of this mission, the Commission joins countless others in condemning today’s decision. As Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The decision today reminds us just how long that arc may be, but together, we will continue to advocate for a more just world – one in which all people are treated with dignity.