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Opinion The court cannot fool itself: Eviscerating ‘Roe’ would upend lives

The Supreme Court on Nov. 21. (Stefani Reynolds for The Washington Post)

The Supreme Court will hear arguments Wednesday in a case testing the constitutionality of a Mississippi law banning abortions 15 weeks after a woman’s last menstrual period, in flagrant violation of both the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling and the court’s 1992 affirmation of Roe, Planned Parenthood v. Casey. The court should strike Mississippi’s law, first, because a person should have a right to choose whether to carry a pregnancy to term. This is perhaps the most private and individual decision anyone can make, and the constitutional principles of dignity and autonomy demand that people be given space in which to make it. Mississippi would eviscerate this right, and upholding the state’s ban would call into question many other bedrock constitutional liberties Americans enjoy.

But the court must also consider the severe practical consequences of overruling its precedents. Mississippi’s lawyers hit peak absurdity when they argue that women no longer have a compelling practical interest in abortion access. “It is not the same world it was in 1973 and 1992,” the state declares. It has cited advances in contraception, access to health care, laws that allow mothers to turn over their newborns to safe facilities, even female enrollment in law and medical schools to claim that abortion is no longer a necessary backstop to, as the Casey court put it, enable “women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the Nation” by facilitating “their ability to control their reproductive lives.”

If the court accepts these arguments, it will amount to an act of willful blindness. “Access to abortion has been found to increase women’s educational attainment, labor force participation, entrance into professional occupations and earnings, and to decrease financial stress and poverty for women and their families,” Middlebury College economist Caitlin Myers wrote in a Post op-ed. “A study using Experian credit reports finds women who were turned away from an abortion clinic on account of arriving just past a gestational limit experience an 81 percent increase in records related to bankruptcies, evictions and court judgments compared to women who arrived just under the limit and were provided abortions.”

Roe substantially cut unwanted pregnancies, and that effect remains sizable. Despite all the progress since Roe, roughly 1 in 4 women — many of them poor or otherwise vulnerable — will have an abortion at some point in their lives. Reverting to a situation in which states may freely deny them abortion access would raise barriers, but not cut off access, for the wealthy who can afford to travel out of state. It would be those who are least capable of seeing through a pregnancy, the birth and the rearing of a child whose futures would be determined by state legislators. Some would seek illegal abortions, which could threaten their lives. Others would simply see their futures evaporate.

The justices must not fool themselves into believing that weakening or overturning Roe would be painless. It would be a deep blow to the ability of America’s women to live full, free, dignified lives — and, therefore, to the nation’s social, economic and moral health.

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