The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday seemed poised to uphold a Mississippi abortion law that could have far-reaching impact, with members of the court’s conservative majority signaling that they may even make sweeping changes to limit abortion rights in the United States.
The case asks the court to rule on whether Mississippi’s ban on abortions after 15 weeks violates federal law and whether Roe v. Wade, which established a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion, should be overturned.
A ruling isn’t expected until summer. But it could have major implications for state laws, potentially opening the door for local legislatures to ban abortions at any time — or entirely.
Here’s what you need to know about the potential local impact:
What’s at stake?
Amal Bass, an attorney at the Women’s Law Project, a nonprofit legal advocacy group for women’s rights, said the Supreme Court ruling would be only step one.
“It’ll go back to the states — and that’s where abortion rights have been defined in the first place,” Bass said.
Since 1973, Roe v. Wade has served as the floor for abortion access that states cannot sink below. States write their own abortion laws within the framework of federal law and their own constitutions. Overturning Roe v. Wade could dramatically change what’s legal at the state level.
“It’d be a free-for-all in the states to do what they want with respect to abortion, consistent with their own constitution,” said David S. Cohen, a professor at Drexel University who specializes in abortion law.
Where does Pennsylvania law currently stand on abortion?
Pennsylvania’s law bans abortions after about 24 weeks, or about six months, of pregnancy. So in the case of a Roe reversal, the legislature could come up with a more or less restrictive law than currently exists to send to the governor to sign.
Even with Roe, Pennsylvania still has a large volume of abortion-access laws on the books — including a mandatory 24-hour waiting period for women seeking an abortion, mandatory consultations, and required parental consent for those under 18.
There’s also an ongoing legal debate around funding. A decades-old Pennsylvania law does not allow Medicaid coverage to fund abortion procedures, but a lawsuit filed by the Women’s Law Project seeking to reverse that will be heard by the state Supreme Court next year.
Where does New Jersey law on abortion stand?
New Jersey already has one of the least restrictive laws and allows abortion at all stages of pregnancy.
The majority of abortions nationally happened in the first 13 weeks of pregnancy, while about 7% were done between weeks 14 and 20 and 1% were done after 21 weeks, according to data from 2018 from the CDC.
Cohen, the Drexel law professor, anticipated few state-level changes even in the event Roe is overturned. “There are strong precedents from the New Jersey Supreme Court protecting the right to abortion,” he said.
Who decides abortion law at the state level?
State legislatures regularly introduce legislation to restrict or increase access to abortion. But governors maintain veto power over these bills — which would remain true even in the event of a Roe reversal.
That’s why Pennsylvania may be at a more precarious crossroads than New Jersey.
While in New Jersey, Democrats control the state legislature, Pennsylvania’s House and Senate are controlled by Republicans. And unlike New Jersey — which just reelected Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy — Pennsylvania voters will elect a new governor in 2022 in what is expected to be a hotly contested election.
“We need to elect a pro-life governor in 2022 to make the reversal of Roe relevant in Pennsylvania,” said Mike McMonagle, president of the Pro-Life Coalition of Pennsylvania, “So our priority is that election.”
Gov. Tom Wolf has repeatedly vetoed bills seeking to restrict abortion access over his two terms — but a Republican takeover in the governor’s office could radically change the playing field.
A GOP-ruled executive and legislative branch could more swiftly enact laws to restrict abortion access.
In the GOP-controlled legislature, lawmakers are looking at other ways to strip the Democratic governor’s power over abortion law — and potentially give it to voters.
Republicans in both the Senate and House are seeking support for constitutional amendments that would clarify there is “no right to an abortion or abortion funding within Pennsylvania’s constitution.”
If passed, those amendments could be put to voters as ballot measures — circumventing the governor’s veto. A similar amendment strategy led to voters curtailing Wolf’s emergency powers during the pandemic.
Where do the Pa. candidates for governor stand on abortion?
We surveyed Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial candidates about their stances after a controversial Texas abortion ban was upheld in October.
Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the lone Democratic candidate for governor, has said he would veto any bill that would further restrict abortion in Pennsylvania. His office filed an amicus brief in the Mississippi case supporting a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion.
Republican candidates have largely avoided specific answers to what type of law they would support in Pennsylvania but have broadly voiced antiabortion stances.
State Sen. Doug Mastriano, a likely candidate for governor, introduced a bill to ban any abortions where a fetal heartbeat is detected, which can occur as early as three to four weeks. Mastriano represents all or parts of three counties in south-central Pennsylvania.
The lone Republican who has said he supports the current Pennsylvania law is Erie County State Sen. Dan Laughlin, who is also exploring a run for governor.
Where does public opinion stand?
Nationally, there’s broad support for abortion in most cases as well as majority support for upholding Roe v. Wade. A November Quinnipiac poll found that 63% of respondents agreed with the court’s ruling on Roe.
In Pennsylvania, 51% of respondents to an October Franklin and Marshall poll thought abortion should be legal in certain circumstances, 36% thought it should be legal in any circumstance, and 11% thought it should be illegal in all cases.