The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Supreme Court prompts the question: Who gets rights in America?

A crowd listens to a speaker during a protest in downtown Houston on Friday after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. (Annie Mulligan for The Washington Post)
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Amy Martin was 14 years old when Roe v. Wade was decided, establishing a right to abortion that she took for granted for nearly five decades. Martin was 56 when the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2015, a right she took advantage of when she married her partner of 30 years last week.

And when the court overturned that first decision on Friday, with Justice Clarence Thomas writing in his opinion that the court should next reexamine cases granting LGBTQ rights, Martin found herself seized with new terror that the second one could also fall.

“What if gay marriage is the next thing?” said Martin, 63, who recently retired from her job at a Cleveland law office, and whose health-care benefits come from her wife’s policy. “The fabric of our country and what it’s been based on, it’s fraying.”

As the implications of the court’s abortion decision continued to reverberate across a divided country on Saturday, many of those who decried the ruling expressed mounting worry that it would not simply restrict abortion access. Instead, they said they saw in the ruling a watershed that could trigger the repeal of a host of other protections — for racial and ethnic minorities, gay people and others — that were established on similar legal grounds as Roe. That possibility was not just paranoid speculation, they noted: It was spelled out by several Supreme Court justices on Friday.

With Roe v. Wade overturned, the legality of abortion has been left to the states. Some worry that access to certain types of contraception could be next. (Video: Julie Yoon, Hadley Green, Sarah Hashemi/The Washington Post)

In interviews, many Americans described alarm that a nation proud of its hard-won expansion of protections for people never acknowledged by its White, male founders had begun to feel more like an unfamiliar land where established rights may melt away in its highest court. The prospect was all the more disturbing, some said, because polls have found a majority of Americans support abortion rights and same-sex marriage.

“It’s like we’ve woken up in the 1950s,” said Madison David, 26, a massage therapist who on Saturday morning was perusing the stalls at a farmers market outside the Capitol building in Madison, Wis. For weeks, she said, she had been riding high on Lizzo’s anthem “About Damn Time,” which David said she views as an ode to the progress women and other historically oppressed groups have made. Now, she said, the ruling had reaffirmed for her the need to prepare to fight for rights — even ones that seemed to have been secured by previous generations.

“We can’t be naive and think that this is where this stops,” said David’s friend, 27-year-old yoga teacher Aurora Guppy Weil.

The majority opinion, written by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., rested on the view that the individual liberties guaranteed by the 14th Amendment protect only rights that had “deep roots” in states when it was ratified in 1868 — a time when abortion was prohibited in many states. Alito took pains to say the ruling would not jeopardize precedents unrelated to abortion, which he wrote is distinct because it destroys an “unborn human being,” which the state also has an interest in protecting.

But other justices plainly dismissed his contention. In a concurring opinion, fellow conservative Thomas said precedents establishing rights to contraception, same-sex marriage and same-sex intimacy should be reconsidered. And the dissenting opinion, penned by the court’s three liberals, excoriated Alito’s reassurances as false promises.

Those other rights, the dissenters wrote, are “all part of the same constitutional fabric,” noting that 19th century laws also did not protect the Supreme Court-recognized rights to interracial marriage or to not be sterilized without consent. They wrote that they “cannot understand how anyone can be confident that today’s opinion will be the last of its kind.”

That concern has been echoed by legal experts, who said the decision could threaten other past rulings that rest on individual liberty protections and related privacy rights recognized by the court.

“The court has for a long, long time said: Look, if we define liberty only in terms of what was permitted at the time of ratification of the Bill of Rights or the 14th Amendment, then we’re stuck in time,” said Scott Skinner-Thompson, an associate professor of law at the University of Colorado Boulder. “Because in the 18th and 19th centuries, this country was not very free for many, many people — particularly women, particularly people of color.”

Although Thomas’s concurring opinion did not mention it, the ruling could even imperil the right to interracial marriage, which the Supreme Court recognized in its 1967 decision in Loving v. Virginia, Skinner-Thompson said. (Thomas, who is Black, is married to a White woman.)

Thomas’s “potential retort would be that that violates the Equal Protection clause, because it’s race-based discrimination,” Skinner-Thompson said. “The problem is that if you take the originalists’ interpretation at face value and say: ‘What were the practices of this country at the time of the ratification of the 14th Amendment after the Civil War?’ Guess what? There was race discrimination all over the place. Separate but equal — it continued apace for over a century.”

The first post-Roe morning dawned sunny in Pittsburgh, where residents of the Bloomfield neighborhood were completing their typical Saturday morning shopping at an outdoor market. But some filling their bags with cucumbers, jars of sauerkraut and clutches of pink peonies mused that nothing seemed regular or normal about the past 24 hours.

“I didn’t think this would happen in my lifetime or anyone’s lifetime, really,” said Kathleen McHugh, 28, a White management consultant who was with her partner, Alex Klinestiver, 30, who is Black. “The people deciding this are completely unaffected by the effects of this,” she said she told Klinestiver when she heard about the ruling Friday. “And now Thomas is licking his chops to change other things that we’ve come to expect, to know.”

That prospect has already prompted Rachel Christian, 29, and her wife, Vania Christian, 36, to discuss their own next steps. After learning about Thomas’s explicit references to same-sex marriage and intimacy as potential targets, the Baltimore couple agreed they would go forward with formally adopting their 11-month-old daughter, Liesel, who rested in her stroller at the city’s pride parade Saturday afternoon while 4-year-old sister, Athena, relaxed in a wagon.

Should their marriage be invalidated, they decided, they need the strongest possible evidence that they are both Liesel’s parents — despite the fact that Vania provided the embryo and Rachel gave birth to Liesel. “After yesterday, we’re like, maybe now we need to rethink. Because nobody thought this was going to happen, and it did,” Vania said.

Rainbow flags and dance music erupted in joyful celebration around the family. But a sense of seriousness and urgency was reflected in signs reading, “Bans off our bodies.”

“It’s a beautiful thing to do today. But in the back of your mind you’re thinking like, what’s the future going to look like?” Rachel Christian said.

In New York City, Kyle Fowler, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Society who specializes in housing, ate lunch in a public plaza straddling the Theater District and Hell’s Kitchen and said he feared the ruling could eventually cost him the right to marry another man. While he and other attorneys he knows had long feared the implications of such a ruling, it has been “an epiphany for a lot of people,” Fowler said.

“With every appointment [former president Donald] Trump made to the Supreme Court, I felt like all of these things are under threat,” Fowler said, adding that the appointments constructed “a slippery slope” and overturning Roe “felt like an inevitability.”

Julie Taylor, 55, describes herself as a Christian and supports abortion in limited circumstances, such as rape, incest and the safety of the mother. But Taylor, who was at Jack London Square near the waterfront in Oakland, Calif., on Saturday, said she wants abortion to remain available to women, “because it’s their bodies.”

The overturning of Roe v. Wade sets the country on the wrong path, said Taylor. “We’re going back in time. It’s never good to go back. It’s like we’re going back to slavery. Women are now second-class citizens. We fought so hard to get to this point, and now, you’re taking us back.”

And Taylor, who is Black, said she fears other rights are also at risk. “Here’s the deal: You’re taking their freedom. My freedom is next,” she said. “You never know when they’re coming after you.”

Martin, the Ohio retiree, said the ruling — and the political and legal head winds she perceives — had so dismayed her that she felt glad she was “at this stage in my life, because I wouldn’t want to live another 20 or 30 years — I’ll be long gone before we see change in the right direction … I think it’s going to be a lot worse before it gets better.”

But others said the decision was galvanizing. Mary Kay Watson, who works in the automotive industry and lives north of Detroit, said she long assessed political candidates’ views on abortion as one consideration among many. The right to the procedure seemed firm, she said.

But Friday’s ruling — which she said she worries could affect her two daughters’ ability to receive medical care if, for example, one miscarried in a state where abortion is banned — changed that.

“For me personally, now, I’m done. I’m doing away with the, ‘Let’s take a view on what the person is as a whole’” said Watson, 56. “If you are anti-choice, you are not my choice. Period.”

Emmanuel Felton in Madison, Wis., Silvia Foster-Frau in Baltimore, Shayna Jacobs in New York, Katherine Kam in Oakland, Calif., Dan Simmons in St. Paul, Minn., and Christine Spolar in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.

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