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Explainer: Supreme Court takes up Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization

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June 2, 2021

In light of the development regarding President Biden’s removal of the Hyde Amendment from his 2022 proposed budget, Christians may be prone to despair at what looks like an undermining of years of pro-life advocacy work. While the president’s proposal is undoubtedly significant, there are other developments from which Christians may draw encouragement.

Currently, there are “more than 40 abortion-related cases working their way through the courts,” but one in particular, out of Mississippi, is a case that is deserving of attention.

In mid-May, the Supreme Court agreed to revisit a previous decision “by reviewing a Mississippi law that would replace the ‘viability standard’ with a limit on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.” Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization is a case that “could have significant implications for some of the central pillars of legal abortion in the United States,” according to Leah Hickman of WORLD Magazine. Though the landmark Roe v. Wade remains in place, this case should energize pro-life advocates to remain steadfast in their work. 

What is this case about?

“Forty-eight years ago, the nation’s highest court barred the government from protecting babies from abortion if they were too young to survive outside the womb,” says Lynde Langdon. With the accruing evidence due to scientific advancements that babies born prior to the supposed “viability cutoff” can still become healthy infants, the Supreme Court justices have agreed to revisit the Dobbs decision.

As reported by Hickman, the appeal in this case that the court agreed to rule on revolves around a central question: “Whether all pre-viability prohibitions on elective abortions are unconstitutional.” This question, according to Clarke Forsythe, senior counsel at Americans United for Life, is “modest and incremental” in that “it doesn’t ask the court to overturn Roe.” However, “the question gets to the heart of the rule limiting protections for babies who aren’t viable outside the womb, usually around 24 weeks, a big pillar under Roe v. Wade.” If decided favorably, this case would potentially expand protections for children in the early stages of gestational development. 

In addition to the protections sought for unborn babies, “the case also allows the Court to consider the States’ interest in protecting maternal health.” In regard to both child and mother, Dobbs is a case fundamentally concerned with the protection and preservation of human life.

What are the implications of a favorable ruling?

Americans United for Life describes this as “a generational opportunity to uphold life-saving protections.” Opining on this very question, Leah Hickman states, “If the court rules in Mississippi’s favor, it could allow states with even earlier protections – such as bills protecting babies from abortion once they have a detectable heartbeat – to enforce their laws.” She goes on to say that “a favorable ruling would also chip away at legal abortion.” Likewise, citing what she’s observed among pro-life advocates, Lynde Langdon describes the Dobbs case “as an opportunity to allow hundreds of proposed state laws protecting babies to take effect.”

Should the case result in a favorable ruling, it would be a seismic win for the pro-life position.  

What is the likelihood of a favorable ruling?

It’s hard to tell. “With the addition of Justices Amy Coney Barrett, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh during the Trump administration,” says Langdon, “the Supreme Court may have a solid pro-life majority.” But, as Hickman says, “that doesn’t guarantee a favorable ruling from the court.” She goes on: “The court could decide to send the matter back to the lower courts or make another limited ruling instead of toppling the viability standard or moving to dismantle legal abortion.” 

According to Steven H. Aden, AUL Chief Legal Officer & General Counsel,“That the Supreme Court is considering this Mississippi law is a promising signal that perhaps a majority of Justices wish to give states greater power to regulate abortion. At the same time, if the Court rejects Mississippi’s common sense protections, the pro-life movement will face a fundamental reckoning.”

Regardless of the court’s decision, Hickman writes, “it will have implications for the other 40-some cases currently in the lower courts.” But, as Forsythe points out, “There’s just a lot of uncertainty and a lot of possibilities. And people should have modest expectations about what might happen.”

One thing is certain. Americans United for Life is right to call this a “generational opportunity,” both in its potential impact and in the Supreme Court’s unique and, for Christians, long-awaited opportunity to arrive at a sensible decision for the protection of human life. 

What’s next?

According to most people weighing in, Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization will likely be scheduled for hearing sometime in the fall when the court convenes for its next term. 

What can Christians and other pro-life advocates do in the meantime?

Christians should continue praying, advocating, and working according to their pro-life convictions “in all areas of politics” and beyond. As Forsythe says, “what happens in courts and legislatures state-by-state can’t help but influence the Supreme Court in knowing that the public will support its decisions to cut back on or overturn Roe v. Wade and return the issue to the people.” Here is an opportunity to maintain a consistent and resolute voice for the human right to life, for both child and mother alike. 

The ERLC will continue to advocate for pro-life rulings and other legislative measures that reflect God’s gracious love for every human life. 

Jordan Wootten

Jordan Wootten serves as a News and Culture Channel Editor at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. He is a graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he earned his Master of Arts in Theological Studies. Jordan is married to Juliana, and they have three children. Read More by this Author