Friday, December 9, 2022 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Rights are on the ballot in November, Biden warns, berating Supreme Court for ruling against abortion

The statement from the White House appears to brace Americans for further attacks on fundamental rights including abortion access.  

WASHINGTON (CN) — President Joe Biden condemned the conservative majority of the Supreme Court in a public address Friday afternoon for overruling Roe v. Wade in what he characterized as an extremist position out of line with the country's views. 

“Today the Supreme Court of the United States expressly took away a constitutional right from the American people that had already recognized,” Biden said from the Cross Hall in the White House where he was joined by more than a dozen senior aides. “It didn't limit it, they simply took it away. That has never been done to a right so important to so many Americans, but they did it.” 

Without mincing words, Biden called the evisceration of the federal right to abortion a direct threat against women. 

“Now with Roe gone, let's be very clear, the health and life of women in this nation are now at risk,” Biden said. 

Though he vowed to try and protect abortion access via executive action, Biden said the people need Congress to act as well. 

“Let me be very clear and unambiguous, the only way we can secure a woman's right to choose the balance that existed is for Congress to restore the protections of Roe v. Wade as federal law,” Biden said. “No executive action from the president can do that.” 

Before Roe, many women who lived in states where abortion was banned could undergo the procedure only by traveling to more lenient jurisdictions. Some anti-abortion politicians have suggested trying to prevent this from happening again, but Biden said this was a “bedrock right” that his administration would defend.

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

Julie Rikelman, an attorney and the senior director of U.S. litigation at the Center for Reproductive Rights, told reporters that people seeking abortions will have to travel hundreds, if not thousands, of miles to access the care they need.

“It will impact their economic security, their ability to pursue their education, to stay in a job, to take care of other family members, and of course, it will impact their health. We are on the verge of what may be the biggest public health crisis we have seen in decades,” Rikelman warned.

But the burden on patients could extend even further, Rikelman said, as state legislatures move to consider laws imposing criminal or civil penalties on people who travel to access abortion care. Missouri lawmakers earlier this year considered a proposal that would allow people to sue anyone who helps a patient cross state lines to seek an abortion. 

“The reality is that we are going to see some of those laws enacted and they will be challenged, but the ultimate constitutionality of those laws will end up being decided through litigation by the courts,” Rikelman said.

Biden vowed to protect access to medication abortion pills approved by the Food and Drug Administration but said other rights could be on the line. 

“I've warned about how this decision risks the broader right to privacy for everyone,” Biden said. “That's because Roe recognized the fundamental right to privacy that has served as a basis for so many more rights that we've come to take for granted, that are engrained in the fabric of this country. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Addressing a concurring opinion from Justice Clarence Thomas, Biden noted Friday that the court could overrule other precedents like the right to birth control and the right to same-sex marriage.

“Justice Thomas says as much today,” the president said. “He explicitly called to reconsider the right to marriage equality, the right of couples to make their choices on contraception — this extreme and dangerous path the court is now taking us on.” 

Demonstrators gather outside the U.S. Supreme Court after the conservative majority issued a 6-3 split decision overturning Roe v. Wade, striking down the federal right to abortion on Friday, June 24, 2022. (Emily Zantow/Courthouse News)

There are 13 states with trigger laws in place to ban abortion automatically or by quick state action, but the number of states certain or likely to ban abortion is 26, according to the Guttmacher Institute. 

Texas, which is among the states with a trigger law, is set to make abortion illegal next month. 

The Lone Star State has been at the center of rolling back access to abortion since it passed a ban on the procedure at six weeks' gestation, the stage at which fetal cardiac activity is detected. That law was allowed to remain in effect following a Supreme Court decision in December. 

Even in the case of rape or incest, abortion is not protected in Texas. This will continue to be the case once the full ban goes into effect on July 24.

Texas’ Republican Governor Greg Abbott, who is running for reelection, spoke Friday about "the right of states to protect innocent, unborn children.”

“Texas is a pro-life state, and we have taken significant action to protect the sanctity of life," he said.

For Abbott's gubernatorial opponent, former El Paso Congressman and presidential candidate, Beto O’Rourke, the only way to ensure reproductive rights in the state is to vote Abbott out.

“The Supreme Court has sent this back to the states, and our state’s current governor has outlawed abortion beginning at conception with no exception for rape or incest,” O’Rourke said in reaction to the decision.

The Texas Democratic Party has called upon fellow its members who hold office as sheriffs, constables, district attorneys, county judges and commissioners, and mayors to refuse to enforce abortion restrictions enacted by the state Legislature. 

“No matter what the United States Supreme Court says, abortion is a valid, safe, and important health care procedure that should never be restricted by any power or authority,” Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said. “The health, safety and rights of Texans are not up for negotiation.”

District attorneys representing some of Texas’ largest cities have already pledged not to enforce such restrictions. 

Alabama is not among the states with a trigger law, but Governor Kay Ivey said the state will use the decision as evidence of why a stay should be lifted on the state's near-total ban on abortions. The Human Life Protection Act was passed by Alabama lawmakers in 2019 and provided exemptions only for fetuses exhibiting a lethal abnormality or in cases that would present a "serious risk" to the health of the mother. A final provision allows abortions for those diagnosed with a "serious mental illness," but the bill carves out no exemptions at all for rape or incest. 

Alabama state Representative Terri Collins, a female Republican who sponsored the legislation in the state House of Representatives, told Courthouse News Service she was celebrating the Supreme Court’s decision.  

“I’m smiling,” she said. “I don’t think there has ever been a right to take the life of a child, and I think all our rights should be governed at the state level.” 

Collins said she was aware of the opposition to the bill regarding its lack of provisions for rape or incest, but suggested the Legislature revisit those restrictions going forward. The Alabama Legislature is not scheduled to return to session until March 2023. 

ADVERTISEMENT

“We tried to keep the bill as tight as we could to simply address the issue of whether a life in the womb is a child,” said Collins, a mother to three children. “In the future, we can continue to decide what is the best thing to do for the people of Alabama.”  

Abortion rights activists are decrying the ruling as an affront to their privacy. 

“I’m a sexual assault survivor who became pregnant as a consequence of my rape,” said Dina Zirlott, an Alabama-based abortion rights advocate. 

Zirlott — who is a mother of three — recounted her finding out she had passed the threshold for legal abortion because she was already in her third trimester when she learned she was pregnant. Zirlott gave birth, but her daughter died of a congenital birth defect at age 1.  

“The social atmosphere in Alabama surrounding abortion is extremely stigmatized already,” Zirlott said. “It’s a shame this has happened now, particularly when we don’t even have any maternal rights or many social services enshrined in our Constitution. Now, you are forcing people to have children, and, on top of it, there will be no support for the children or the mother after birth. It will be devastating for low-income mothers.” 

While Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, declined to comment on the center’s litigation strategy during a Zoom call with reporters Friday afternoon, attorney Rikelman said they expect to file challenges to trigger laws in some states. 

In Mississippi, home to the abortion clinic at the center of the Dobbs decision, the state’s trigger law bans abortion access in almost all cases 10 days after the state’s attorney general certifies that Roe has been overturned.

“This is obviously a devastating day,” Northup said. “This decision is the biggest setback to women’s rights in, I would say, United States history.”

Northup condemned the ruling as “an affront to the rule of law” and warned that it will leave “vast swaths” of the South and Midwest without access to abortion care. The people who will suffer the most will be those who already have difficulties accessing health care, she said: people of color, young people, immigrants, LGBTQ people and those who live in rural areas.

Hillary Schneller, senior staff attorney for the center, said litigation surrounding trigger laws in 12 other states will require a state-by-state analysis.

“This is now very much a state-by-state fight we have to go through because the floor provided by Roe is no longer there for a national constitutional right,” Schneller said.

Demonstrators gather outside the U.S. Supreme Court on June 24, 2022, after the conservative majority overturned Roe v. Wade, striking down the federal right to abortion, in a 6-3 decision. (Emily Zantow/Courthouse News)

The National Medical Association denounced the court’s decision. 

“This decision is unconstitutional, dangerous and discriminatory,” said Rachel Villanueva, a practicing OB-GYN who serves as the group's president. “It will not stop abortions from being performed. It will unfortunately only make the procedure more dangerous. Women of color, poor women and other disadvantaged individuals who don’t have the resources to travel to obtain the medical care they need will be disproportionately impacted.” 

Villanueva said the decision would be especially harmful to Black women who face particularly high rates of maternal mortality. Villanueva warned about the precedent that this ruling could set and said the entire medical community should be “gravely concerned.” 

“This is a dark day in America,” Villanueva said. “The Supreme Court has stripped away the freedom of individuals to make deeply personal health care decisions. Medical matters should be determined by patients and their health care providers — not by justices in Washington, D.C., or the government.”  

In California, which has plans to be a sanctuary state for women seeking reproductive health care, leaders condemned the high court's ruling. Governor Gavin Newsom echoed Biden's fears and called it a harbinger of things to come for other fundamental rights.

“We are at a profound and consequential moment,” said Newsom. “Those states which have, or will, outlaw abortion are not interested in life, they are only interested from conception to birth. After birth they do not care. We need to stand tall and lean in. They are coming after you next and even Justice Thomas said it is time to reconsider all the due process cases.”

First partner Jennifer Newsom said, “As a mother I am outraged that my daughter will grow up in a country where girls like her will have less rights then me. California will serve as a haven for anyone in this country seeking an abortion and California.”

California Attorney General Rob Bonta called it "a dark day, a sad day and a tragic day by one of the most outrageous and devastating decisions by the Supreme Court," adding: "This decision has put at risk the lives and health of millions of women across the United States. I will use the full force of my office and authority to protect all women in California and their right to an abortion.”

The ruling has sparked protests at the court and across the country. In Chicago, the list of participants for a demonstration set to kick off at 5:30 CT in front of the Dirksen Federal Courthouse includes not only the Illinois ACLU but community organizations such as the Democratic Socialists of America and the Party for Socialism and Liberation.

“Now more than ever we cannot sit back and despair. We must take to the streets across the country and make it clear that we will not accept this,” the Socialism and Liberation Party wrote in an online post advertising the event. “We won’t go back. We WILL fight back!”

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot indicated support for the protests, though she said she hoped the demonstrations would remain peaceful.

“We have a long tradition of peaceful protest in this city," she said in a press conference on Friday afternoon, "and I think we have to let our voices [be] heard… apathy and silence is complicity.”

Outside the U.S. Supreme Court after the ruling, the group of protesters included Julia Ruiz, 26, of Washington, D.C., who spoke about supporting a friend who was given the news while pregnant that her baby would die in the womb.

“My mom, like, helped her through that whole birth, and I was actually, like, in the room,” she said. “So, you know … choice just goes so deep for me.”

Jon Richards, 44, of New York City, was particularly fearful about the concurring opinion in which Justice Thomas calls for the court to review decisions on marriage equality, reproductive rights and contraception.

“I think this is horrible,” he said. “I think it's terrible. I think it's awful for women — obviously — but also for everybody. I think it's just gonna start spiraling into anti-choice for people.”

Though concerned about how the court operates, Richards didn't have a clear answer for what should replace it.

“This is not it,” he said. “Taking away people's rights and people's autonomy is not the way to do it.”

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.

Loading
Loading...