The Persistent Threat to Abortion Rights

The Supreme Court this week heard the first major challenge to abortion rights since it struck down Roe v. Wade two years ago — an attempt to severely limit access to mifepristone, the most commonly used abortion pill in the country, by a group of doctors who are morally opposed to the practice.

The justices seem prepared to throw out the lawsuit. During oral arguments, they questioned whether the doctors had suffered the harm necessary to bring the suit in the first place.

But that should come as small comfort to anyone concerned for the future of reproductive freedom in America. Judges at the state and federal level are ready to further restrict reproductive options and health care access. The presumptive Republican nominee for president, Donald Trump, has indicated support for a 15-week national abortion ban. And while the Supreme Court, in overturning Roe, ostensibly left it to each state to decide abortion policy, several states have gone against the will of their voters on abortion or tried to block ballot measures that would protect abortion rights. Anti-abortion forces may have had a tough week in the Supreme Court, but they remain focused on playing and winning a longer game.

Even potential victories for reproductive freedom may prove short-lived: The mifepristone case, for instance, is far from dead. Another plaintiff could bring the same case and have it considered on the merits, a possibility Justice Samuel Alito raised during oral arguments.

“Is there anybody who could challenge in court the lawfulness of what the F.D.A. did here?” he asked the solicitor general, Elizabeth Prelogar. Such a challenge would be exceptionally weak, given that the F.D.A. provided substantial support for its approval and regulatory guidance on the use of mifepristone, but the right-wing justices on the Roberts court may be willing to hear it again anyway. The justices have already illustrated their hostility to the authority of administrative agencies, and that hostility may persist even in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence.

Then there is the Comstock Act, a 151-year-old federal law that anti-abortion activists are trying to revive to block the mailing of mifepristone and other abortion medication. During the oral arguments this week, Justices Alito and Clarence Thomas repeatedly expressed their openness to the use of the law, which was pushed by an anti-vice crusader decades before women won the right to vote. If anti-abortion activists can get themselves before a sympathetic court and secure a national injunction on this medication being mailed, they may well be able to block access to abortion throughout the country, including in states where it is legal.

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