When a draft opinion from the U.S. Supreme Court leaked in May, pro-abortion advocates knew it was likely that Roe v. Wade would soon be overturned. But for many, the court’s final decision Friday still came as a shock.
“Honestly, when it happened, I was surprised. I think I held out a little bit of hope that the leak might change something,” says Ashley Reynolds, a North Carolinian who had her first and only abortion 25 years ago, at age 17. “I felt collective sadness for the rest of the day. Then the next day I was angry.”
Reynolds, who joined a pro-choice protest in Raleigh earlier this year, took to the street again this weekend for a protest in Cary, she says. Hundreds of pro-abortion advocates across the Triangle also marched to make their voices heard.
“I hope the momentum can stay until November,” Reynolds says. “There’s a lot at stake in North Carolina, so we’re not in the clear. I hope everyone remembers this.”
For women in North Carolina, the clock is ticking. As soon as the Supreme Court decided to overturn Roe v. Wade on Friday, a countdown started, one to the end of reproductive freedom. Abortion is still legal in North Carolina, a fact that has become a touchstone for pro-choice advocates this week. But with the decision, there’s now a caveat: “Abortion is still legal … for now.”
Republican leaders have said they won’t file any new abortion bills before the end of the legislative session, but they’re already taking steps to reinstate North Carolina’s 20-week abortion ban, which a federal judge struck down in 2019. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s decision—that Roe, decided in 1973, was “egregiously wrong and deeply damaging”—sets the stage for a winning appeal by Republicans.
Senate leader Phil Berger and house speaker Tim Moore wrote in a letter Friday that they “stand ready to take necessary steps” to restore the state’s 20-week ban. The letter, sent to Democratic attorney general Josh Stein, threatens action next week, giving Stein until July 1 to reinstate the law.
Stein’s office will almost certainly shoot down that request; it has fought the 20-week ban since it passed. But Stein’s resistance won’t matter to Berger and Moore, who will likely file their own request to lift the court’s injunction currently blocking enforcement of the law.
Most women, if they’re lucky, find out they’re pregnant between three and four weeks. Then, after a phone call to a clinic, state law requires people seeking abortions to wait three days before their first appointment. Following the Supreme Court’s decision, clinic staff are also expecting an influx of patients, creating wait times for appointments, says Amber Gavin, vice president of advocacy and operations for A Woman’s Choice, which runs three abortion clinics in Raleigh.
And that’s all before accounting for the amount of time it takes to make travel arrangements or save money for an abortion, not to mention exceptional circumstances that may prevent people from seeking an abortion until later in a pregnancy.
“Every year in the U.S. between 54[,000] and 63,000 people get abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. It’s for a lot of different reasons,” Gavin says, including paying for travel, hotels, and childcare.
“Now patients are going to have to travel hundreds of miles. People who are already facing barriers to accessing abortion early in pregnancy will suffer the most: people who are struggling to make ends meet, people of color, and young people.”
Republican leaders have also announced their intent to pass more laws criminalizing abortion when the legislature resumes its normal session in January. Speaker Moore wrote in a statement that “North Carolinians can expect pro-life protections to be a top priority of the legislature” next year. It’s unclear what that means, but it could include a near-total ban on abortion, like Tennessee’s, or a six-week ban on abortion, like the one North Carolina Republicans introduced last year.
The one big obstacle standing in the way of the North Carolina legislature is Governor Roy Cooper, who can veto anti-abortion laws.
Republicans reintroduced several anti-abortion measures last year, including Senate Bill 405, similar to a bill Cooper vetoed in 2019. SB 405 passed the senate but not the house and targeted doctors providing abortions by making it a crime to “not treat infants who survive abortion,” a misleading statement that implies medical professionals are performing infanticide, according to Planned Parenthood.
Another measure, House Bill 453, would have banned doctors from performing abortions supposedly based on the presumed race or sex of a fetus or on a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome. Cooper vetoed that bill, too.
But Cooper’s veto power may not last forever. In November’s election, Republicans only need to win three more seats in the house and two more seats in the senate to achieve a veto-proof supermajority.
“If the General Assembly wants to pass a [total] abortion ban, and they’re able to get that ban into law, the courts are really not gonna be as much of a help as they had been in the past,” says Tara Romano, executive director of Pro-Choice NC, “because there’s no longer that federal protection.”
Women and pro-choice activists across the state had been expecting the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, but the decision still hurt, says Romano.
“It still felt hard,” she says. “This is a right that was just stripped away from over half the people in this country. I know a lot of people are feeling sad and scared. I think the idea behind it was to make people feel powerless. Young folks have said to me, ‘I always knew I was second class, but now it really feels like it.’”
The majority opinion, penned by Alito, also overturns Planned Parenthood v. Casey, a 1992 decision that upheld the federal right to abortion.
“The decision of a bare majority of Supreme Court justices to completely overrule Roe, Casey, and more than 20 decisions reaffirming or applying the fundamental right to abortion is not conservative in any traditional sense. It is radical,” says Neil Siegel, a professor of law and political science at Duke University.
“In one fell swoop, the court has eviscerated half a century of constitutional law that has protected women’s bodily integrity, autonomy to chart their own life’s course, and equal citizenship. I often disagree strongly with the court, but this decision has shaken my confidence in it.”
Siegel added that the court’s decision calls into question the right to contraception, intimacy between two consenting adults, and interracial and same-sex marriage. Although the majority of the conservative justices stressed that Friday’s ruling should not cast doubt on other cases or precedents, Justice Clarence Thomas took a different stance, arguing the Constitution’s due process clause does not protect any substantive rights.
In a concurring opinion, Thomas wrote the Supreme Court should reconsider cases like Griswold v. Connecticut, which affirmed the right to access contraception; Lawrence v. Texas, which affirmed the right to privacy and struck down so-called sodomy laws; and Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage.
“This decision was bad, but we also worry what else might be coming,” says Romano.
On the question of abortion access, Romano says she remains committed to the fight. She and other activists are educating people on their right to abortion and how, where, and when they can get one.
“I have colleagues in a lot of other states, including some states where abortion is no longer legal,” Romano says. “We’ve worked hard to keep abortion access legal in North Carolina, and I feel fortunate we have an opportunity to fight for it.”
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