A Defining Moment for the Roberts Court
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It’s no exaggeration to say American women are staring down the barrel of the biggest attack on their rights in generations. As the U.S. Supreme Court considers the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the future of women’s rights has not been this imperiled since before the court’s 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade.
Saturday marks the 49th anniversary of that decision, which established a constitutional right to abortion up to about 24 weeks of pregnancy — and beyond, if the health of the mother is in danger. The Mississippi Legislature is trying to overturn Roe, by reducing the period to 15 weeks, with no exceptions for a mother’s life or health. Other states are seeking to restrict the period even more — or eliminate it entirely.
The court could uphold the Mississippi law or go further, by opening the door to state laws that are de facto prohibitions on abortion. In either case, it would be overturning a landmark decision, undermining a fundamental right and severely eroding public trust in the courts.
A decision is still months away, but based on the court’s ideological politics, it seems likely that there are three votes for Mississippi and three votes for Roe. The three others — John Roberts, Amy Coney Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh — need to hear loudly and clearly that rolling back the firmly established and widely supported legal protections that have been the law of the land since Roe would be a historically colossal mistake, one that would forever tarnish the reputation of the Roberts court.
About 70 percent of Americans have no recollection of life before Roe. But for those of us who do, we remember other truths from that time: Women were almost universally denied equal opportunities in their careers and faced widespread discrimination. As a result, they were almost entirely absent from leadership positions in the public and private sectors.
So much has changed since then for the better, and while there is still much more to be done, Roe remains an essential element of a woman’s right to control her own future. Overturning Roe would roll back more than abortion rights. It would roll back two generations of progress toward equal rights.
Reproductive rights are already facing overly severe restrictions. In the past decade, Republican state legislatures have passed a steady stream of laws making it harder for people to exercise their reproductive rights. As a result, 2 in 5 women of childbearing age now live in a county without a single abortion provider. And by the end of 2022, that number could be far higher.
Last year alone, 108 restrictions on abortion were passed in 19 states, including a law in Texas that subjects abortion providers to civil lawsuits. In fact, even driving a friend or a family member to an abortion clinic in Texas could result in legal jeopardy.
Fundamental American and human rights should never be bound by geography, existing in one state but not another. They belong to all of us. That’s what makes them rights. What’s true of the right to free speech and the right to practice one’s religion must also be true for reproductive rights.
I have strongly supported women’s rights organizations for decades, globally, nationally and locally. As New York City mayor, one of my first acts was requiring public hospitals to teach all OB-GYN residents reproductive care, including how to safely perform abortions. Over the years, I’ve given $50 million to support reproductive rights in the U.S., including recent donations of $14 million to the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the Center for Reproductive Rights, and the Collaborative for Gender + Reproductive Equity.
Some of that new funding is helping to support the legal fight in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, while some of it is helping to support and elect leaders who are committed to ensuring that people can get the reproductive health services they need, including preventive care that reduces unintended pregnancies and maternal deaths.
After years of bitterly divisive political battles over judicial nominations — including the U.S. Senate’s refusal to consider a nominee because the president nominating him belonged to the other party — the Supreme Court is at an institutional crossroads. It can save what remains of its reputation for nonpartisanship by preserving women’s long-held rights, or it can destroy the last vestiges of that reputation by voiding them.
In the long run, I’m confident women’s rights will triumph — as fundamental individual rights have throughout American history. And I’m hopeful that, in the short run, this court will not cast us backward while also further politicizing the judiciary and diminishing public trust in it.
Michael R. Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News, and UN Special Envoy on Climate Ambition and Solutions.
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