June 27, 2022 – Friday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark ruling in 1973 establishing a constitutional right to abortion, has spurred abortion rights supporters and opponents into action, speeding up their efforts to protect or remove access to abortion.
For now, the fight moves to the states, where so-called trigger laws have already banned nearly all abortions in a handful of states. More will likely take effect soon.
“Half of [the states] are going to have quite restrictive abortion laws, and about half will pretty much maintain the status quo,” says Ron Allen, JD, a constitutional law expert and professor of law at Northwestern University. “My guess is, the largest population will be in those states that maintain the status quo, [though] that’s not terribly consoling to somebody in Arkansas, [which has a trigger law.]”
Federal and state officials spoke out quickly about what protections are still in place for access to abortion, and some governors have taken new actions to expand that protection.
While abortion rights advocates called on Congress to pass legislation legalizing abortion access nationwide, others, including former Vice President Mike Pence, said a national ban on abortions should be the next step.
Federal, State Protections
President Joe Biden quickly addressed the issue of women needing to travel out of state to access abortion. In his statement Friday, he said: “So if a woman lives in a state that restricts abortion, the Supreme Court’s decision does not prevent her from traveling from her home state to the state that allows it. It does not prevent a doctor in that state from treating her.”
In a statement also issued Friday, Attorney General Merrick Garland expressed strong disagreement with the court’s decision and also pointed out it does not mean that states can’t keep abortion legal within their borders. Nor can states ban reproductive services provided to their residents outside their own borders, he said.
Women living in states banning access to abortion, he said, “must be free to seek care in states where it is legal.” Others are free to inform and counsel each other about reproductive care available in other states, he said, citing the First Amendment.
Doctors who provide abortion services in states where the services remain legal, as well as patients who receive the services, will be protected under the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, Garland said in a statement from the Department of Justice.
States reiterated protection for health care providers. For instance, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law on Friday protecting California abortion providers from civil liability when they provide care for women traveling from states where abortion is banned or access to it is narrowed.
Officials from other states with abortion access began publicizing their status as “safe havens.” New York Attorney General Letitia James tweeted: “While other states strip away the fundamental right to choose, New York will always be a safe haven for anyone seeking an abortion.”
Newsom, too, among other state officials, has promised his state would be a sanctuary for women in need.
After the ruling, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul and the New York State Department of Health launched a new website and campaign, Abortion Access Always, providing a single destination for information about rights, providers, support, and other details.
Garland and Biden strongly warned states not to try to interfere with access to the so-called abortion pill. Approved 20 years ago by the FDA to safely end early pregnancies, the medication, mifepristone (formerly called RU-486) is taken along with misoprostol, a drug also used to prevent stomach ulcers. Medication abortion now accounts for more than half of all abortions, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
In his statement, Garland noted that the “FDA has approved the use of the medication mifepristone. States may not ban mifepristone based on disagreement with the FDA’s expert judgment about its safety and efficacy.”
Plan C, an information campaign for abortion services, has a state-by-state directory of ways to find the pills, even in states restricting access to abortion, says Elisa Wells, Plan C’s co-founder and co-director.
Calls for National Access
On Friday, Biden called on Congress to restore the protections of Roe v. Wade as federal law. “No executive action from the president can do that,” he said. If Congress lacks the vote to do that now, voters need to make their voices heard, he said.
“The Supreme Court is but one of many government bodies that can protect the right to abortion,” Nancy Northup, JD, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, New York, said on Friday. “We will be looking to the Congress to pass the Women’s Health Protection Act. Congress can solve this as a national problem. We’ll be looking to the Biden administration to use the extent of its powers.”
The Women's Health Protection Act would prohibit government restrictions on access to abortion services.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt) tweeted: “Democrats must now end the filibuster in the Senate, codify Roe v. Wade, and once again make abortion legal and safe.”
“The federal government can do a lot of things,” said Allen, the Northwestern professor. “It’s interesting that we focus on the administrative agencies. The fight over Roe is a fight in large measure over who should be deciding and whether these are issues that should be decided by agencies or a court or legislators.”
Anger, he said, “should be directed at legislators, and that’s who should be acting here, and that means people have to get out and vote.”
Calls for a National Ban
Pence told far-right publication Breitbart News that the court’s decision should lead to a national ban on abortion.
He also took to Twitter. Among other posts, he said: “Having been given this second chance for Life, we must not rest and must not relent until the sanctity of life is restored to the center of American law in every state in the land!”
Organizations on both sides of the issue have mobilization and expansion plans.
NRLC: The National Right to Life Committee will now focus on state legislatures, says Laura Echevarria, the group’s communications director.
“We will continue to work on these [anti-abortion] laws in the states we can get these passed,” she says. There’s no one size fits all. “New York is not going to pass a law that Alabama is going to pass. Every state is going to be doing something different.”
“The next big thing is to build that safety net” for women who decide to avoid abortion, she says. More than 2,700 “pregnancy help” centers operate in the U.S., she says. “We don’t run them, they are independent.” But the NRLC supports them. The centers provide pregnancy support and financial help, “two big reasons why women get abortions.”
She added: “The pro-life movement often gets a bad rap, like we don’t care about women, and we do.” In an open letter issued May 12 to state lawmakers, the NRLC said: “We state unequivocally that we do not support any measure seeking to criminalize or punish women and we stand firmly opposed to include such penalties in legislation.”
ACLU: Anthony D. Romero, JD, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, issued a statement Friday that read in part: “Second-class status for women has once again become the law because of today’s decisions.”
As the fight plays out in the court, the ACLU urges voters to head to the polls, noting that state constitutional amendments to preserve reproductive freedom are on the ballot in Kansas in August and in Vermont and Kentucky in November.
“A majority of justices ruled to throw away nearly 50 years of precedent and take away the right to control our bodies and personal health care decisions,” the Planned Parenthood site posted.
On Saturday, the Planned Parenthood Association of Utah filed suit in Utah state court, planning to request a temporary restraining order against the state’s ban on abortion at any point in pregnancy. The law took effect Friday.
Abortion-Rights Offers of Help
As legislators and public officials focused on what the next steps should be, social media lit up over the weekend with offers of help for women in states without access to abortion.
One meme posted on social media focused on “camping.” Reportedly created by a woman who needed abortions before the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, it reads: “If you are a person who suddenly finds yourself with a need to go camping in another state friendly towards camping, just know that I will happily drive you, support you, and not talk about the camping trip to anyone ever.”
While the camping code word quickly picked up steam, one Twitter user who favored the court’s decision called the trend of using camping as a code word to help people access abortions “horrible.”
TikTok users also offered their homes and help to women from other states who might need either. And one Airbnb host posted this invitation on Facebook: “My Airbnb is free for any American woman coming to Los Angeles for an abortion. Hugs and cute kittens, too.”