Could Dobbs spell the end of Roe v. Wade?
With a major Supreme Court abortion case on the horizon, pro-life leaders evaluate the chances of overturning Roe v. Wade and the implications for the pro-life movement
Attorney Tom Glessner and his wife left their house at 2 a.m. the day in June 1992 that the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Glessner had a personal goal: “I wanted to be the first up the steps into the court because I wanted to tell my grandchildren I was sitting in the front row of the court the day Roe v. Wade was reversed.” He was certain the case would spell the end of the 1973 Roe decision that created a so-called right to abortion.
Glessner, now president of the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA), wasn’t the only one with high hopes. Pro-life advocates were confident that Justices Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, and Sandra Day O’Connor would cast pro-life votes to reverse Roe. “We all thought we had at least a 5-to-4 majority, and I was so excited,” Glessner said.
The attorney accomplished his personal goal: He was first up the steps, and he sat in the front row of the court. But the justices handed down a decision no pro-lifer wanted. They ruled 5-4 in favor of Planned Parenthood.
Almost three decades later, a similar pro-life anticipation is in the air as the Supreme Court prepares to hear oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a case some believe could spell the end of Roe. While the excitement is more tempered this time, many pro-life leaders are imagining what a post-Roe America could look like. Some noted potential new challenges ahead for the pro-life movement, and others expressed optimism thanks to the movement’s progress since Casey.
The Dobbs case is the first time since Casey that a state has asked the Supreme Court to overturn Roe, according to Steven Aden, the chief legal officer at Americans United for Life. At issue in Dobbs is a Mississippi law that protects babies from abortion starting at 15 weeks of gestation. Under Supreme Court precedent, states cannot prevent women from accessing abortions before viability—the point in the pregnancy when the baby can survive outside the womb—but that’s exactly what this law does. So, in its brief filed at the court, the state of Mississippi directly asked the court to overrule the precedent for “a right to abortion” set by Roe and Casey. The Supreme Court itself agreed to reexamine the viability standard in taking up the case. Based on that, said Aden, “it’s clear to me that the Supreme Court wants to do something big on abortion with the Dobbs case.”
For his part, Glessner hesitates to say he’s absolutely certain of Roe being overturned this time around. But he’s “pretty optimistic.” Based on the political leanings of the new justices, he thinks the numbers look good for a pro-life majority. “The only bad decision we can get from the court on Dobbs is if the Supreme Court finds Mississippi’s law unconstitutional,” Glessner said. “Anything else is a huge victory. … If the court upholds that law, they’re cutting out the heart of Roe.”
Others are less certain.
“We all learned the lesson in Casey that, you know, don’t count your chickens until the eggs hatch,” said Teresa Collett, a professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. She’s been involved in pro-life work since the 1980s and contributed to three briefs in the Dobbs case. Collett pointed to past rulings of the three Trump-appointed justices—Amy Coney Barrett, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh—as a reason to question whether they’d vote to overturn Roe. She also worries the justices could overrule Roe and Casey while including a far-flung health exception that would leave abortion access practically unchanged.
If the justices do overturn Roe, Collett and other pro-lifers foresee new challenges and opportunities to help pregnant mothers and babies. Collett expressed uncertainty that states have enough free resources—diapers, for instance—to provide for needy families. Care Net President Roland Warren questioned whether, in a possible post-Roe America, the few thousand pregnancy centers in the country could effectively serve hundreds of thousands of women and the babies they would otherwise have aborted. To fill the gap, he said, American churches need to step up to serve the abortion-vulnerable women in their communities. Warren hopes churches will pursue a “discipleship” approach that helps young mothers, fathers, and their babies not just in their time of crisis but for months or years afterward.
“The Casey decision didn’t do that—it didn’t inspire the church to really build out the kind of thing that I’m talking about,” he said. “My prayer is that this decision will.”
Warren and others agree the pregnancy center movement has “changed the calculus” on the abortion issue since Casey. “Our movement is so far ahead of where we were in 1992,” Glessner said, noting the massive increase in the number of pregnancy centers in the past three decades.
Heartbeat International’s amicus brief in the Dobbs case pointed out another facet of this growth: Only three pregnancy centers offered medical services at the time of the Casey decision. Today, over 2,000 do. “The pregnancy help movement is one piece of why the court can revisit Roe and revisit Casey and rest assured that women are not going to be … cast into darkness because they find themselves unexpectedly pregnant,” said Danielle White, general counsel for Heartbeat International and author of the brief.
Regardless of the Dobbs decision, Warren said the mission for pregnancy centers and pro-lifers will stay the same: to help build strong families. It’s a victory whenever individual women choose to bring their children into the world despite personal hardship and the availability of legal abortion.
“When you’re on the care side of the pro-life movement, you know, Roe v. Wade is being overturned every day,” said Warren.
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