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The Supreme Court’s extraordinary decision to eliminate the universal right to abortion is a watershed moment in the American experiment, ending half a century when people were free to make their own reproductive decisions and immediately ushering in an era when states can make that choice for them.
From a practical standpoint, the court’s decision is an earthquake, one that is already leading to the creation of a checkerboard legal system in which blue states continue allowing the procedure and red states apply new restrictions or outright bans.
Politically speaking, however, the battle going forward will look much the same as it’s been, pitting pro-choice liberals against anti-abortion conservatives in a cultural cage match to determine the fate and form of reproductive rights across the country.
Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of Friday’s decision, Democrats are already vowing to codify abortion protections into law — same as they’ve done for decades — while Republicans are pledging to build on their momentous victory with new designs on an old goal: to ban the procedure nationwide.
The dichotomy was reflected on a microcosmic scale outside the Supreme Court on Friday morning, where a crowd of hundreds, then thousands, quickly formed following the unveiling of the decision — a spontaneous celebration/protest that turned First Street NE, which separates the Court from the Capitol, into a human parking lot.
It was a study in contrasts. Depending on your perspective, it was a day of either jubilation or sadness — a reason to dance in the streets or to scream out loud.
Abortion opponents have fought to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark ruling that established the constitutional right to abortion, since the day it came down in 1973. They formed a euphoric scene outside the Court, featuring music and bubbles, hugs and tears of joy.
“I’ve never been this happy, I think, in my entire life,” said A.J. Hurley, director of Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust, who was in town from Los Angeles in anticipation of the decision.
For abortion rights defenders, who had carved out their own space in front of the Court, it was a moment of focused anger. The ruling, they said, was a violation of bodily autonomy — “Women are not incubators,” they chanted — and many vowed to simply ignore the decision.
“I will aid and abet abortion,” read one popular sign.
Claire Qian, from Lexington, Ky., had a personal reason to be there protesting Roe’s repeal. Her mother, she said, had two abortions, the first for financial reasons and the second because of medical complications.
“If she had had the kid, she would have died,” Qian, 20, said. “And I remember she was sobbing, she was a wreck. It wasn’t an easy decision at all — she was emotionally in turmoil for a while. But it was necessary, because she has a right to live as well.”
Qian’s sign told the tale: “My Mother’s Abortion Saved Her Life.”
Abortion opponents, of course, have a much different view, with many arguing that life begins at conception and therefore terminating a pregnancy is the equivalent of murder.
“For 50 years in this country, the government has thought it’s OK to kill children because of your size and where you’re located,” Hurley said.
Many abortion foes had been leery of Donald Trump and his crude brand of politics but supported him nonetheless for the opportunity to transform the Supreme Court. It was a gamble that was validated this week: Trump seated three Justices in the course of four years, all of whom voted to overturn Roe. Victory in hand, opponents of abortion are now planning to take their activism to those states where abortion will remain legal.
“This is just the beginning,” said Kristin Turner, head of Pro-Life San Francisco.
While emotions were high on both sides Friday — leading to a few face-to-face shouting matches — there appeared to be no violent confrontations, as the two sides remained largely separated throughout the day. Huge numbers of Capitol Police were on hand just in case.
Kristin Tobaben Smith, 47, an ESL teacher visiting from Denver, Colo., was on the Metro with her two daughters when someone told her to avoid the Supreme Court because of the demonstration. Instead, the trio made a beeline toward it.
“I’ve been to these before. The first one I went to I was young, I was in college. And I was fighting for my rights as a woman to make choices, but now it’s even more important for me because I have two daughters,” said Tobaben Smith. “And for them to make choices on how they take care of their bodies is for them to make, not the government.”
Her younger daughter, 11-year-old Claire, shared similar thoughts.
“I feel like the U.S. government is not being very kind to women, because they’re taking away a lot of rights from them,” she said. “It’s supposed to be a free country, but then people are taking all the girls’ rights to either have a child, or not to have a child. And it’s sad because it’s their bodies.”
Friday’s decision, while explosive, was also expected. Politico had published a draft ruling last month that proved to be largely in line with the final decision.
Still, for abortion rights supporters, knowing the outcome in advance did little to dull their emotions when the ruling was made official.
“I literally started shaking with anger,” said Rep. Sara Jacobs, a 33-year-old California Democrat. “As a young woman, and one of the few women of reproductive age in Congress, this decision feels very personal. Because it’s five radical judges saying that they know more about the health care decisions that I need to make about my body than I do.”
The Supreme Court’s decision to repeal Roe comes on the heels of a pair of rulings to expand religious freedoms and extend gun rights, and the three combined have added to the controversy swirling around a Court that’s already seen its public standing plummet in recent years.
Roe is historically popular, with public opinion polls indicating for decades that less than a third of the country supports its repeal. Given those figures, some Democrats are accusing the Court — or at least the Republicans who secured the conservative majority — of ignoring the will of voters.
“There is no democracy — there is no freedom — if women cannot make decisions about their own health care, including reproductive health care,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.). “It’s a disgraceful decision.”
Adding to the controversy, several of the Trump-appointed justices had indicated during their confirmation hearings that, not only were they committed to the long-held legal doctrine of honoring precedent, but that Roe — which has weathered numerous challenges over the years — was among those decisions. Some are now questioning whether to take the Court seriously at all.
“It’s clear that the Supreme Court has no legitimacy left with the American people,” said Jacobs, “and that they are overturning the will of people across the country.”