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After Roe ruling, Garland gears up for the next legal battles

In decrying historic legal decision, the attorney general vows to fight on several abortion-related fronts

Attorney General Merrick Garland speaks at the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 5. (Carolyn Kaster/AFP/Getty Images)

Attorney General Merrick Garland signaled Friday that in response to the Supreme Court’s historic decision allowing states to limit or ban abortions, the Justice Department is preparing for legal battles on a host of related issues — from women traveling to states where the procedures are legal, to accessing pills that can induce abortions.

There is little the Justice Department can do to alter the impact of the Supreme Court’s decision, which is now the law of the land and is expected to significantly restrict abortion access in 13 states in the short term. As conservative-leaning state legislatures respond to the ruling, similar restrictions are likely to spread to another dozen or so states.

“This decision deals a devastating blow to reproductive freedom in the United States,” Garland said in a statement.

Abortion will soon be banned in 13 states. Here's what comes next.

But Garland, a former federal appeals court judge, also laid down important markers for how the Biden Justice Department will handle any legal aftershocks of the decision, such as if states try to pass laws preventing women from traveling to other states to get abortions.

Garland said “bedrock constitutional principles” protect women’s rights to seek reproductive care in states where abortions remain legal. New York’s Democratic governor, Kathy Hochul, immediately declared her state a “safe harbor” for those seeking abortions.

Garland also signaled that abortion counseling services must be allowed even in states where abortion is banned, calling it a “fundamental” principle of the First Amendment that “individuals must remain free to inform and counsel each other about the reproductive care that is available in other states.”

The stern and lengthy statement from the nation’s top law enforcement official shows that the Justice Department, like many advocates on either side of the abortion debate, expect Friday’s decision will lead to a flurry of new state laws — and therefore court fights — about abortion-related issues.

The department, Garland pledged, “will work tirelessly to protect and advance reproductive freedom.” He also noted that the Biden administration wants Congress to pass legislation to reestablish nationwide abortion rights.

Garland said the department is ready to work with the FDA to ensure American women have access to Mifepristone, often referred to as the abortion pill.

Many Republican legislatures have tried banning the pills from being prescribed or shipped by mail, but some women have been able to circumvent those restrictions. States, Garland said, “may not ban Mifepristone based on disagreement with the FDA’s expert judgment about its safety and efficacy.”

The attorney general said federal agencies “may continue to provide reproductive health services to the extent authorized by federal law,” — an indication that there may be a fresh spate of legal battles over what kind of reproductive health care may be provided by doctors working for the federal government.

“Few rights are more central to individual freedom than the right to control one’s own body,” Garland said.

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.