The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For abortion rights supporters and foes, live arguments were a rare shared experience

Missouri state Rep. Mary Elizabeth Coleman (R) traveled with her daughter Larkin to D.C. to speak at an antiabortion rally. (Mary Elizabeth Coleman)

Maisie Brown associates historic moments with crowds. The 20-year-old has organized protests for Black Lives Matter in Jackson, Miss., and she has attended rallies to change the state flag, too. But Wednesday, as the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in an abortion case out of her home state, Brown padded out to her living room holding her 7-month-old daughter. A little after 9 a.m. Central time, the audio Brown had beamed from YouTube to her TV crackled through.

“Oyez, oyez, oyez,” the clerk of the court said.

Brown had never listened to Supreme Court oral arguments before, and she wouldn’t have been able to as recently as last year. Cameras are not allowed in the Supreme Court chambers, and the court historically did not release audio of the arguments until the end of each week. But thanks to the pandemic, the public has been able to tune in to a live stream of the arguments. On Wednesday, supporters and opponents of abortion rights followed the proceedings together, in real time, on TVs and laptops and over phones pressed to their ears outside the Supreme Court, held rapt as the justices asked questions that could decide whether abortion remains legal nationwide.

Shortly after the arguments began, Brown picked up her phone and texted a friend who is studying journalism and political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Normally the two chat about the “Real Housewives” franchise, but as Justice Stephen G. Breyer grilled Mississippi Solicitor General Scott Stewart, Brown and her friend messaged with a fervor that even reality TV can’t provoke. Every lawyer, Brown noted, was White. And many of the justices questioning Julie Rickelman, an attorney representing the Jackson abortion clinic, were male.

​​​​“I’m actually getting irritated,” Brown wrote. “Honestly because I have to listen to men grill a woman on the issue of abortion at all.”

Brown thought some of the justices seemed to be agreeing with Mississippi’s argument, and that made her worry, not just for her own state but for people across the country.

“If Mississippi is successful, half the states in this country could go back home and say: ‘We’re about to do some abortion bans. We have the authority to do this,’ ” Brown said in an interview. “It doesn’t just affect pregnant people here in Mississippi. It affects pregnant people all across the country.”

According to the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization focused on reproductive health and rights, if Roe v. Wade is overturned, 22 states would ban or severely restrict abortion access. Some have pre-Roe abortion bans on their books that would become enforceable again, and others have passed post-Roe “trigger laws” — bans that would take effect if Mississippi prevails. Others are working to pass trigger laws now.

Jordyn Close lives in one of those states. Though Ohio hasn’t yet passed a trigger law, legislators there introduced a bill this fall that would ban abortion if Roe is overturned. Close, a 25-year-old who had an abortion when she was 18, initially hoped to travel to D.C. with other abortion rights advocates, but she feared lawmakers might push the bill through this week, so she stayed in Columbus and listened with her best friend.

For the past few years, Close has volunteered as an “abortion storyteller” to destigmatize the procedure. She wasn’t financially unstable when she decided to terminate her pregnancy. She wasn’t too young to be a mother. She just didn’t want to be a parent.

“My decision to have an abortion wasn’t a difficult one,” Close said. “It was a necessary one, and it was a beautiful one. For the first time in my life, I was able to make a decision for myself and my future.”

On the live stream, Stewart argued that many people want Roe overturned so that states can decide independently whether to allow abortion.

“In Ohio, no,” Close said. “I would not trust our legislators to act in the best interests of Ohioans, even though the majority of Ohioans and Americans are pro-choice.”

In November, an Ohio lawmaker introduced House Bill 480, a law that would ban all abortions there. The bill uses the same enforcement strategy deployed in Texas this year to ban most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, but it goes a step further by banning abortion at any point during gestation.

Shawn Carney, president and chief executive of 40 Days for Life, an antiabortion organization based in Texas, followed the arguments at home in Houston.

Listening to the arguments wasn’t “exactly like watching ‘Bravehart,’” Carney said, but he perked up when Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh noted that the court had broken precedent to decide landmark cases such as Brown v. Board of Education and Obergefell v. Hodges.

“As somebody who wants to see Roe v. Wade overturned, to hear Kavanaugh say that Roe can be overturned, I was very encouraged,” he said. “We don’t just uphold things because of precedent. If the Supreme Court did that, we would still have slavery. The Supreme Court’s greatest victories are often overturning their greatest errors.”

Advocates elsewhere agreed that the hearings were surprisingly engrossing. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, a state representative from Missouri, traveled with her daughter Larkin to D.C. to speak at an antiabortion rally alongside Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch. But as Coleman listened to the live stream on her phone outside the Supreme Court, she became so absorbed that she missed her speaking slot. She found Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.’s questions “telling” and Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s inquiries “off-base.”

“I think this is a group of justices that isn’t afraid to admit when the court got it wrong, and to go back and get it right,” she said.

In Evanston, Ill., Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg followed with “a great tightness in my throat and chest.” Ruttenberg works as the scholar-in-residence for the National Council of Jewish Women, an organization that fights for abortion rights, and she has written about the ways Judaism not only permits abortion but sometimes requires it. She tweets about the issue to more than 146,000 followers, and her organization filed an amicus brief in support of Mississippi’s abortion clinic.

Still, Ruttenberg said, “knowing what’s at stake intellectually is different from being present as the process unfolds.”

She found it “powerful” when Sotomayor noted that “the issue of when life begins has been hotly debated by philosophers since the beginning of time” and is still debated by religions.

“This is an argument that NCJW has been making for some time, since in Judaism, the fetus is regarded as ‘mere water’ for the first 40 days after conception and part of the pregnant person’s body for the rest of the pregnancy,” Ruttenberg said.

As Roberts announced that the case had been submitted, Brown put away her phone. Other abortion rights activists were rallying at Mississippi’s only abortion clinic, but Brown and her baby both were infected with the coronavirus a few weeks ago, so she planned to watch analysis on TV.

She’s studying history remotely at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, and it’s finals week, but listening felt like its own history lesson.

“I felt like I was in there, on the back row,” she said. “It felt like we were witnessing something that can either turn out to be incredibly impactful and protective or incredibly damaging to our democracy in the coming decades.”

Roe v. Wade and abortion access in America

Roe v. Wade overturned: The Supreme Court has struck down Roe v. Wade, which for nearly 50 years has protected the right to abortion. Read the full decision here.

What happens next?: The legality of abortion will be left to individual states. That likely will mean 52 percent of women of childbearing age would face new abortion limits. Thirteen states with “trigger bans” will ban abortion within 30 days. Several other states where recent antiabortion legislation has been blocked by the courts are expected to act next.

State legislation: As Republican-led states move to restrict abortion, The Post is tracking legislation across the country on 15-week bans, Texas-style bans, trigger laws and abortion pill bans, as well as Democratic-dominated states that are moving to protect abortion rights enshrined in Roe v. Wade.

How our readers feel: In the hours that followed the ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Washington Post readers responded in droves to a callout asking how they felt — and why.

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