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Abortion Test Case From Mississippi Could Undermine Roe V. Wade

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Supreme Court majority includes three justices appointed by former President Trump. When campaigning in 2016, Trump had spoken explicitly of appointing two or three justices who would, quote, "automatically overturn abortion rights." Senate Republicans took extraordinary steps to help Trump, holding one seat open at the start and racing to fill a seat at the end. So let's hear some of the debate now as the court takes up the Mississippi case. NPR national correspondent Sarah McCammon is on the line. Sarah, good morning.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: What are some of the implications of this case?

MCCAMMON: Well, this is going to be a narrowly focused case with very broad implications. The justices have said they would focus particularly on one really crucial question, which is whether or not banning abortion before fetal viability is constitutional. Nancy Northup leads the Center for Reproductive Rights, which is challenging this Mississippi law.

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NANCY NORTHUP: The court cannot uphold this law in Mississippi without overturning Roe's core holding, and that core holding - that every pregnant person has the right to decide whether to continue their pregnancy prior to viability - that has been reaffirmed again and again and again and again.

MCCAMMON: And so, generally, under current precedent, states have more latitude to restrict abortion later in pregnancy, not as much earlier on when a fetus couldn't live outside of a woman's body. What counts as fetal viability is a little murky. It's shifted earlier and earlier with advances in medicine. But, Steve, this 15-week ban in Mississippi, which advocates acknowledge was designed specifically to challenge these precedents, it falls before fetal viability by any measure. And also this will be the first major abortion case, as you alluded to, with Justice Amy Coney Barrett on the bench. Her presence, of course, seems to tilt the court further to the right.

INSKEEP: Listening to Nina Totenberg, I get the impression that Mississippi would not be the only state with an interest in this case.

MCCAMMON: Not at all. Everyone expects that if the court upholds this law, other states, other conservative-leaning states, will rush to pass similar laws. It's unclear how broad the ruling could be or to what degree the court would allow states to restrict abortion, but it's clear there would be national implications. Shannon Brewer is the director at the Jackson Women's Health Organization, the only abortion clinic in Mississippi, and a plaintiff in this case. Here's what she said.

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SHANNON BREWER: I know that this is going to be a devastating impact if this goes through for women, not only here in Mississippi but everywhere. This is going to affect half of the United States.

MCCAMMON: And what she's referring to there is the Center for Reproductive Rights estimates that if Roe v. Wade were overturned, about 20 states would likely ban abortion altogether in short order.

INSKEEP: I guess we should be clear, Sarah McCammon, we don't have a ruling at this point. We have an agreement to hear a case.

MCCAMMON: Right.

INSKEEP: We think of these issues as sort of thumbs up, thumbs down - yes, no, abortion up or down - but that's not the way these rulings often are. They can be extremely complex. They can be very narrowly drawn. We don't actually know what the court majority would necessarily do, but here is the case before the court, and they've decided there's something they want to consider. What are you hearing from abortion rights opponents?

MCCAMMON: Well, of course, they are celebrating the court's decision to take the case. Abortion rights advocates had hoped that the court would just reject it out of hand and defer to lower courts who have said this kind of law is unconstitutional. But, of course, overturning Roe has been a longstanding goal and a political rallying cry for social conservatives for decades, and they believe they're closer than ever to doing that. Eric Scheidler with the Pro-life Action League says he hopes this could just be a first step.

ERIC SCHEIDLER: So if Mississippi's law is upheld and we see, you know, red states enacting similar legislation, they're going to go farther. Some of them are going to shoot for maybe a 12-week ban. There's a vast landscape of possibility. And I'll be excited to see how things play out next year when we finally get a ruling.

MCCAMMON: And he says, you know, lawmakers in conservative states will be looking very closely at how the court rules in trying to pass similar laws, depending on what the court says they can do.

INSKEEP: Well, what is happening in state legislatures right now when it comes to abortion rights?

MCCAMMON: There are many other anti-abortion laws and proposals working their way, both through state legislatures and through the courts. Many of those ban abortion, or would ban abortion, earlier than 15 weeks. Abortion rights opponents would like to see the court review some of those earlier abortion bans that could allow even deeper abortion restrictions in the future. We know from the Guttmacher Institute, which supports abortion rights, that state legislatures - just this year, Steve - have passed hundreds of abortion restrictions. And so we're likely to see more of these kinds of battles in the coming months and years.

INSKEEP: Well, we'll continue tuning in for your coverage. Sarah, thanks so much.

MCCAMMON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR national correspondent Sarah McCammon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.