The US Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade. What does that mean?

The Supreme Court has ruled to overturn Roe v Wade, the landmark 1973 legal decision that enshrined abortion as a constitutional right. Ending federal protection for abortion access across the US will have lasting health, emotional and financial repercussions for millions of people, and casts American reproductive rights back 50 years.

The final decision ends weeks of speculation following the leaking of a draft opinion in May, which detailed the Supreme Court’s resolve to strike down the ruling. It states that the Constitution “does not confer a right to abortion,” and that the right to abortion is not deeply rooted in the nation’s history and tradition, adding that the “authority to regulate abortion is returned to the people and their elected representatives.”

Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote the opinion, was joined by justices Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, who supported the decision. The court’s three liberal justices, Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, dissented, meaning they disagreed with the majority opinion.

“With sorrow—for this Court, but more, for the many millions of American women who have today lost a fundamental constitutional protection—we dissent,” they wrote.

Access to legal abortion is now subject to state laws, allowing each state to decide whether to ban, restrict or allow abortion. Some parts of the country are much stricter than others—Arkansas, Oklahoma and Kentucky are among the 13 states with trigger laws that immediately made abortion illegal in the aftermath of the ruling. In total, around half of states are likely to either ban or limit access to the procedure, with many of them refusing to make exceptions, even in pregnancies involving rape, incest and fetuses with genetic abnormalities. Many specialized abortion clinics may be forced to close their doors in the next few days and weeks.

While overturning Roe v Wade will not spell an end to abortion in the US, it’s likely to lower its rates, and force those seeking them to obtain them using different methods. People living in states that ban or heavily restrict abortions may consider travelling to other areas that will continue to allow them, although crossing state lines can be time-consuming and prohibitively expensive for many people facing financial hardship.

The likelihood that anti-abortion activists will use surveillance and data collection to track and identify people seeking abortions is also higher following the decision. This information could be used to criminalize them, making it particularly dangerous for those leaving home to cross state lines.

Vigilante volunteers already stake out abortion clinics in states including Mississippi, Florida and North Carolina, filming people’s arrival on cameras and recording details about them and their cars. While they deny the data is used to harass or contact people seeking abortions, experts are concerned that footage filmed of clients arriving and leaving clinics could be exploited to target and harm them, particularly if law enforcement agencies or private groups were to use facial recognition to identify them.

Another option is to order so-called abortion pills to discreetly end a pregnancy at home. The pills, which are safe and widely prescribed by doctors, are significantly less expensive than surgical procedures, and already account for the majority of abortions in the US.

Online activists scrambled to help Texas residents access the pills after the state passed the SB8 law, which made the procedure illegal when a heartbeat is detected, last September. As this usually occurs around six weeks into pregnancy, the bill effectively criminalizes abortion because unpredictable cycles mean many people are unlikely to know they’re pregnant at that stage. 

Experts told MIT Technology Review it would be wise to research access to the pills depending on the state they live in, suggesting that some people may want to order the pills, which have a shelf life of at least three years, in advance.

This story will be updated

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