If SCOTUS Overturns Roe v. Wade, Who Will Be Impacted the Most?

The U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, May 4, 2022. Photo Courtesy: Valerie Plesch/Bloomberg/Getty Images

On May 3, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts confirmed the authenticity of the recent leak of Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion on Dobbs v. Jackson. The court’s ruling will not be final until publication, which is expected to happen in the next two months. At this time it isn’t known whether there have been subsequent changes to the draft or whether votes on the court will shift before publication.

If the decision is published as-is, it would overturn the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973, removing federal, constitutional protection of a person’s right to have an abortion. Such a decision would impact everyone, but it would certainly impact some groups of people in more immediate, severe and long-lasting ways than others. Let’s take a look at who would be impacted most by the end of the protections outlined in the Roe v. Wade decision.

Individual States and “Trigger Laws”

According to NPR, 21 of the 50 U.S. states are set up to “immediately ban or acutely curtail access to abortions.” That number includes states that, during the Trump administration, enacted “trigger laws” — laws that are not currently enforceable but would go into effect if circumstances change. The overturning of Roe v. Wade would trigger these laws in Arkansas, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and Utah. 

People gather during a rally in support of abortion rights in America in Washington Square Park on May 3, 2022 in New York City. Photo Courtesy: Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

Four of these states, along with Alabama, Arizona, Michigan, West Virginia and Wisconsin, have laws still on the books from prior to the Roe ruling, and could choose to begin enforcing those laws immediately. Additionally, the states of Georgia, Iowa, Ohio and South Carolina have passed laws, currently blocked by courts, that prohibit abortions as early as six weeks into a pregnancy — so-called “heartbeat” laws — at the onset of detectable cardiac activity. If Roe is overturned, those laws could also go into effect. 

If these “trigger laws” and older pieces of legislation go into effect in these states as outlined above, abortion would become illegal, or at least nearly impossible to obtain legally, for the 135 million people in these 21 states. Beyond that, the legality of abortion would likely be called into question in other states more and more often, especially in currently states like Florida, Indiana, Montana and Nebraska. People in all of these states will be the first to be impacted by the potential overturning of Roe

Abortion and Healthcare

Historically, making abortion illegal does not decrease abortion rates. People would still need abortions, and likely get them, but the procedures would be much less safe. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the World Health Organization (WHO), and many other groups, abortion is a common and necessary health care intervention. 

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Ana Langer, a professor at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, pointed out in December 2021 that, according to a recent study, banning abortion “would lead to a 21% increase in the number of pregnancy-related deaths overall and a 33% increase among Black women, simply because staying pregnant is more dangerous than having an abortion.” This makes clear that access to abortion is often an issue that demands medical intervention.

Abortion Happens Even Where it Is Illegal

What that statistic above does not include is the possibility of increased deaths from unsafe abortions or attempted abortions, both of which would likely become more common in places where abortion would become illegal. In fact, according to recent statistics, abortion rates have fallen worldwide over the past 25 years as more countries have increased access to safe abortions. However, that’s not the case in areas with more restrictive access to abortion. 

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According to the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-choice research organization studying issues around reproductive health, restricting access to abortion does not stop people from needing or from seeking abortions. In fact, the data shows that “abortion rates are similar in countries where abortion is restricted and those where the procedure is broadly legal.” This means restricting access to abortions makes it far more likely that abortions happen in unsafe, illegal ways.  

Economic Resources and Access to Abortion

Abortion, like all healthcare issues, is connected to access to resources. In the U.S., 75% of people who have abortions are classified as either poor or low-income, according to data from 2014. Beyond that, the data shows that people of color are disproportionately affected, and have a much higher share of abortions than of rest of the population at large. These disparities exist across access to healthcare more broadly in the U.S., and abortion access is a piece of that larger issue. 

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If it’s true, as research suggests, that abortion rates will likely either stay the same or go up as abortions become illegal or restricted in more states, then the lack of access to safe abortion will also disproportionately impact people without the resources to find safe access elsewhere. The financial resources to travel to states where abortion is legal aren’t available to everyone. 

The New York Times suggests that people “most affected in states with bans would be those who can’t easily travel. They are disproportionately poor, Black, Latina, teenagers, uninsured, and undocumented immigrants.” And, unfortunately, the states where abortion is likely to become illegal are largely the states with the thinnest set of social supports for women and children, and have higher levels of child poverty. 

The Possibility of Future Legal Reversals

Abortion rights demonstrators outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, May 4, 2022. Photo Courtesy: Valerie Plesch/Bloomberg/Getty Images
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Finally, the impact of Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson will likely be felt beyond the areas of abortion and healthcare more broadly. In his draft of the Dobbs opinion, Justice Alito writes, “Nothing in this opinion should be understood to cast doubt on precedents that do not concern abortion.” Nevertheless, many are concerned that other legal precedents based on the right to privacy could be in jeopardy, including the right to same-sex marriage and the right to contraception — the latter of which is directly tied to the abortion issue in so many ways. 

President Joe Biden made this clear in his response to the SCOTUS leak when he said, “If what is written is what remains, it goes far beyond the concern of whether or not there is the right to choose. It goes to other basic rights … who you marry, whether or not you decide to conceive a child or not, whether or not you can have an abortion, a range of other decisions.”

What this makes clear is that while, as we’ve suggested above, there are specific groups of people — folks with less financial resources, people of color, and people living in areas where abortion is likely to become illegal — who will be impacted the most by the potential Dobbs ruling, the implications are much larger. Ultimately, the decisions of the Supreme Court have a major impact on how we think about freedom and privacy more broadly, and what kinds of laws govern our lives. 

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