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US women fear 'dire, immediate' rollback of abortion rights after Justice Kennedy's retirement

Experts say Kennedy's retirement 'opens the door for an ever-increasing array of restrictions' on abortion

Emily Shugerman
New York
Friday 29 June 2018 00:06 BST
Local pro-choice activist Lisa King holds a sign in front of the U.S. Supreme Court as a pro-life activist holds a rose nearby during the annual 'March for Life' event
Local pro-choice activist Lisa King holds a sign in front of the U.S. Supreme Court as a pro-life activist holds a rose nearby during the annual 'March for Life' event (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Justice Anthony Kennedy’s decision to retire has been met with fear by those who fear it could a reversal of US abortion laws.

The highly respected judge was a key defender of Roe v Wade during his nearly 30 years on the Supreme Court's bench, serving as a tie-breaking vote on challenges to the 1973 decision that made abortion legal in America.

His retirement means President Donald Trump will be able to nominate another justice the Court – bringing the balance to four justices in favour of Roe v Wade and five against it, many experts have concluded.

The news triggered massive outcry from women’s rights advocates and organisations, who warned the reversal of reproductive freedoms was imminent.

“With Trump nominating the next Supreme Court justice, our constitutional right to access legal abortion is in DIRE IMMEDIATE danger – along with the fundamental rights of all Americans,” tweeted NARAL, a pro-choice political advocacy group.

Legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin also warned on CNN: “You’re going to see 20 states pass laws banning abortion outright."

Erwin Chemerinsky, a constitutional scholar and the dean of Berkeley Law, agreed with his sentiment.

The attorney said it was “very likely” that Roe v Wade would be overturned under a new Court configuration, leaving it up to the states to determine their own abortions laws.

Donald Trump on Justice Kennedy: 'He will be missed, but he will be retiring'

About half of the states would choose to outlaw abortion outright, he estimated.

Fearing just such an outcome, activists urged women to call their representatives and demand that any of Mr Trump’s Supreme Court selections be shot down.

Others started fundraisers for abortion providers and advocacy groups within hours of Mr Kennedy's announcement. Some women even suggested starting up underground networks to help women in states where abortion was made illegal.

But Megan Donovan, a senior policy manager at research and advocacy group Guttmacher Institute, said the rollback of abortion rights may be slower – and less obvious – than many anticipated.

She said Americans should expect to see the protections of Roe v Wade “drastically undermined” before they were overturned.

“Rather than the court stripping constitutional protections for abortions, we could see [the Court] really open the door for an ever-increasing array of restrictions that have the effect of making it harder and harder – and in some places impossible – for people to access abortion,” she added.

Although the Supreme Court – with Mr Kennedy's help – shot down some of the most stringent restrictions in 2016, many states already have laws on the books limiting women's access to abortion.

Forty-three states already prohibit abortions after a certain point in a pregnancy, and 27 require women to wait a specific amount of time before receiving one, according to the Guttmacher Institute. More recently, pro-life legislators have pushed for bans on specific types of abortions, such as those completed by taking a pill at home.

With a sympathetic court, Ms Donovan said, some state legislators may feel empowered to implement even more of these anti-choice restrictions.

“If one of these restrictions reaches the Supreme Court with a different compositions, we may see the doors open to a new array of challenges,” she said.

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