The landmark decision never gave women the rights that people wanted to believe it did.
By Mary Ziegler
JANUARY 21, 2023
Tomorrow will mark 50 years since Roe v. Wade was decided, but the landmark ruling did not make it to its semicentennial, having been overturned by Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization last summer. Many people viewed this as the end of abortion rights in America. But that’s not what it was. Both practically and theoretically, Roe was never the guarantor of those rights that people believed it to be.
The “Roe” that has occupied the center of the abortion debate for decades bears only a passing resemblance to anything the Supreme Court said in 1973. Roe has become much more than a legal text; it’s a cultural symbol created not only by judges but by voters, politicians, and grassroots movements. And the history of America’s fixation on Roe is a story not just about the power of the Supreme Court, but about how the Court alone does not—and should not—dictate what the Constitution says.
The Supreme Court’s decision to end federal protections for abortion access didn’t just rewind the clock 50 years, it opened a Pandora’s box of confusing, potentially life-threatening legal complications. VF talks with five women on the front lines.
BY ABIGAIL TRACY AND ERIN VANDERHOOF
PHOTOGRAPHY BY DIANA MARKOSIAN AND DRU DONOVAN
OCTOBER 12, 2022
Tattooed on Caitlin Bernard’s left foot is the image of a coat hanger and the words “Trust Women.” The 38-year-old Indiana-based ob-gyn got it years ago; it was intended as a reminder of life before Roe v. Wade. Bernard has long paired her medical career with advocacy. She was a plaintiff in an unsuccessful 2019 American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit to reverse Indiana’s near-total ban on second-trimester abortions. Post-Roe, Indiana became the first state to pass an abortion ban. Now, Bernard is girding for another legal fight—this time against Republican Indiana attorney general Todd Rokita, who she says maligned her practice as Bernard became a lightning rod in one of the most publicized cases after the Dobbs decision stripped federal abortion protections and turned the country into a patchwork of disparate laws.
After Roe, the anti-abortion movement faces a new opponent: popular opinion.
By Mary Ziegler
OCTOBER 3, 2022
The anti-abortion movement has
long loved to profess its love for democracy. Clarke Forsythe of Americans
United for Life consistently called on the Supreme Court to reverse Roe v. Wade
and put questions about abortion “back into voters’ hands—where they belong.”
The National Catholic Register proclaimed the day Roe was overturned “a
wonderful day for democracy.”
But now democracy may not look so hot to
anti-abortion activists: In the months since Roe was overturned, voters in
Kansas, a deeply conservative state, decisively rejected a proposal to undo
state constitutional abortion rights, and many expect the result to be the same
when voters confront ballot initiatives in key states such as Michigan. Fueled
by rage about the reversal of abortion rights, Democrats have nearly eliminated
Republicans’ advantage in voter registration and have turned what appeared to
be a landslide loss in the 2022 midterms into a potential nail-biter.
July 3, 2022
Historically, doctors have played a big role in abortion's legality. Back in the 1860s, physicians with the newly-formed American Medical Association worked to outlaw abortion in the U.S.
A century later, they were doing the opposite.
It’s a longshot, but court watchers are closely eyeing the chief justice for middle ground on Roe.
By JOSH GERSTEIN
When the two sides in the abortion debate squared off at the Supreme Court last fall, they agreed on one thing: There was no middle ground.
Now, any hope abortion rights supporters have of avoiding a historic loss before the court lies with Chief Justice John Roberts crafting an unlikely compromise. In the wake of POLITICO’s report last month on a draft majority opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade, Roberts would have to convince at least one of his five Republican-appointed colleagues to sign on to a compromise ruling that would preserve a federal constitutional right to abortion in some form while giving states even more power to restrict that right.
BY KATE SHAW AND STEVEN MAZIE
MAY 27, 2022
It has been more than three weeks since the bombshell leak of a draft opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization—the pending Supreme Court case that could end abortion rights in America as we know them. Justice Samuel Alito’s draft pronounces Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision recognizing a constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy, “egregiously wrong from the start.”
Laced with contempt for a right that has stood for 49 years, the Dobbs draft overrules Roe along with the 1992 follow-on decision Planned Parenthood v. Casey. The weaknesses of the draft are many: a shockingly narrow view of constitutional rights; an insistence that killing “an unborn human being” poses a “critical moral question” with no acknowledgement that commandeering wombs might raise an ethical quandary, too; reasoning that, despite dubious disclaimers, puts other rights—including contraception, sexual intimacy, and marriage equality—at risk.
Antiabortion activists and their Republican allies are on the cusp of reaching a goal they have sought for decades in tossing out the 1973 Supreme Court ruling legalizing abortion.
By Michael Scherer, Josh Dawsey, Caroline Kitchener and Rachel Roubein, Washington Post
May 7, 2022
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell still remembers the shock he felt when Donald Trump won the 2016 election. He also recalls what happened next.
“The first thing that came to my mind was the Supreme Court,” McConnell said in an interview this past week, remembering his reaction that night as he watched results from a basement office at the National Republican Senatorial Committee. He soon called Donald McGahn, campaign counsel to the president-elect, who was slated to become the top White House lawyer.
At the state level, countless factors will converge to produce unpredictable results.
By Rachel Rebouché and Mary Ziegler
APRIL 25, 2022
Everything about the American abortion war has taken on an air of inevitability. The Supreme Court will reverse Roe v. Wade, the landmark abortion decision establishing a constitutional right to end a pregnancy. The United States will divide along expected lines, with abortion broadly accessible in blue states and all but entirely criminalized in red states.
This narrative is not completely wrong. Twelve states have passed so-called trigger bans that will outlaw all or most abortions if Roe and Planned Parenthood v. Casey are overturned. At the same time, 16 states and the District of Columbia have policies guaranteeing abortion rights no matter what the Supreme Court decides.
After building toward such a moment for half a century, pro-life legal efforts aren’t likely to stop there.
By Jeannie Suk Gersen, The New Yorker
April 17, 2022
In 2003, when the Supreme Court held, in Lawrence v. Texas, that criminalizing gay sex was unconstitutional, it insisted that the decision had nothing to do with marriage equality. In a scathing dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote, “Do not believe it.” Then, in 2013, when the Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act’s definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman, emphasizing the tradition of letting the states define marriage, Scalia issued another warning, saying that “no one should be fooled” into thinking that the Court would leave states free to exclude gay couples from that definition. He was finally proved right two years later, when the reasoning on dignity and equality developed in those earlier rulings led to the Court’s holding that the Constitution requires all states to recognize same-sex marriage.
What will the future of abortion in America look like?
By Jessica Bruder
APRIL 4, 2022
One bright afternoon in early January, on a beach in Southern California, a young woman spread what looked like a very strange picnic across an orange polka-dot towel: A mason jar. A rubber stopper with two holes. A syringe without a needle. A coil of aquarium tubing and a one-way valve. A plastic speculum. Several individually wrapped sterile cannulas—thin tubes designed to be inserted into the body—which resembled long soda straws. And, finally, a three-dimensional scale model of the female reproductive system.
The two of us were sitting on the sand. The woman, whom I’ll call Ellie, had suggested that we meet at the beach; she had recently recovered from COVID-19, and proposed the open-air setting for my safety. She also didn’t want to risk revealing where she lives—and asked me to withhold her name—because of concerns about harassment or violence from anti-abortion extremists.