This story has been updated.
In a historic reversal, the U.S. Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade, a decision that will limit abortion access in many states and potentially exacerbate racial disparities in maternal health. The impacts will fall disproportionately on Black people, who receive about a third of abortions nationwide.
The opinion, released on June 24, solidifies a 98-page draft written by Justice Samuel Alito that leaked in May and raised alarms among maternal health care advocates that the high court would strike down the 1973 ruling that guaranteed the constitutional right to an abortion. The official court opinion in the case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, overturned the precedent set by Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Planned Parenthood.
The court’s ruling does not create a national ban but gives individual states the power to allow, aggressively restrict, or deny abortion access. More than a dozen states have “trigger laws” that now automatically ban abortion in their boundaries with Roe overturned. Many are Southern states where Black women are also disproportionately likely to live.
Black communities stand to be particularly hard hit by the decision. The rate of abortions among Black women is more than three times that of white women, and they are at least three times as likely as white women to die from pregnancy-related causes, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
The court’s decision “will lead to significant harm in communities of people who already suffer under the weight of maternal mortality in the United States,” said Michele Bratcher Goodwin, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine. “Disproportionately, the people who suffer in those ways are women of color, particularly Black women who have yet to be fully acknowledged as full persons in some states and also before this Supreme Court. That’s not hyperbole. That’s simply a matter of racial legacy in this country and a burden that Black women have been forced to bear.”
After the opinion was published, many advocates expressed determination to keep fighting for access to reproductive health care.
“The court has failed us all — but this is far from over,” Planned Parenthood Action Fund tweeted. In a statement, Planned Parenthood President Alexis McGill Johnson called the court’s decision “devastating” and said that it gives “politicians permission to control what we do with our bodies.”
The court is now at odds with more than two-thirds of Black adults, who believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases. That’s a higher percentage than white Americans and represents a significant shift in Black Americans’ views since the early 2000s, when they were less likely than others to view abortion as “morally acceptable.”
But the Black anti-abortion movement continues, often arguing that the procedure is a tool to restrict growth of the Black population. Advocates say they’re dedicated to valuing human life, beginning with conception.
Cherilyn Holloway, the founder of Pro-Black Pro-Life, said the court’s decision left her in shock with mixed emotions — happy that the court upheld her personal values yet hurt seeing women she loves in pain after the decision published.
“My heart aches for women who feel like something has been taken away from them,” she said. “I can’t necessarily just feel the joy of knowing that we’re going to have an opportunity to change the way the culture sees life inside the womb.”
The higher rate of abortions among Black women largely results from structural issues that contribute to unplanned pregnancies, experts say, including limited access to comprehensive sex education, health care, and adequate insurance coverage.
The court’s decision could also worsen the Black maternal mortality crisis, which in some cases has made staying pregnant more dangerous than having an abortion.
“This represents a time of a new Jane Crow in our country,” said Goodwin, the law professor. “One in which there will be free states where people can get the reproductive health care and services that they need and deserve, and also where those services will not be available in states that are practicing Jane Crow, Jim Crow-era law making. That is what is reflected in the legislation.”
Prior to Friday’s Supreme Court ruling, 20 Black women members of the Congressional Black Caucus sent a letter to President Joe Biden calling on him to use his executive powers “to protect fundamental reproductive rights and abortion access in response to recent attacks on abortion care — including by declaring a public health and national emergency,” as overturning Roe v. Wade would “disproportionately put Black lives at risk.”
California, Oregon and Washington state launched a multistate commitment Friday to protect abortion access on the West Coast. Several other states had previously instituted protections for abortion rights: Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington state, as well as Washington, D.C.
The court’s decision raises the potential to prosecute women who get abortions and the health care providers who perform them, according to the dissenting opinion written by Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. That could lead to an inflation of people of color in the criminal justice system, where Black Americans are already incarcerated at a higher rate than others.
“As Texas has recently shown, a State can turn neighbor against neighbor, enlisting fellow citizens in an effort to root out anyone who tries to get an abortion, or to assist another in doing so,” the dissenting justices wrote.
In 2020, 68 elected prosecutors from states with “passed or contemplated abortion restrictions” such as Texas, Georgia, and Mississippi signed a letter vowing to “never prosecute individuals for obtaining or providing abortions.” After the high court’s latest decision, 16 more elected prosecutors have made the same commitment, according to Fair and Just Prosecution, a network of elected prosecutors working toward commonsense, compassionate criminal justice reforms.
Solid statistics and demographics for individuals arrested, prosecuted, or convicted for abortion-related charges are hard to come by, but a 2018 report by Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health found that “there have been at least 21 arrests for self-managed abortion in 20 states since 1973.”
Yveka Pierre, senior litigation counsel for If/When/Why, a reproductive legal justice advocacy organization, believes those numbers are higher. In a preliminary review of cases between 2000 and 2020, Pierre said the group found 60 individuals either criminally investigated, arrested, or convicted for ending their own pregnancy or helping somebody else do so.
In September 2021, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott enacted an anti-abortion law that prohibits the procedure beyond six weeks gestation. Idaho and Oklahoma followed Texas’ lead and passed similar laws. And days after Alito’s opinion was reported in May, Louisiana lawmakers advanced a bill that would consider abortion a form of homicide — that bill was ultimately canned.
An interactive map by the Guttmacher Institute, a think tank tracking reproductive health and policy, outlines the abortion landscape in each state.
In a 2020 survey, Guttmacher found that 1 in 5 pregnancies ended in abortion. The survey, tracking nearly 1,690 abortion providers along with state health department data, signaled the first increase in the abortion rate in 30 years.
“Abortion is a racial justice issue, and this decision will disproportionately impact Black families and devastate our economic futures,” Alicia Garza, the principal for Black to the Future Action Fund, a national organization dedicated to making Black communities powerful in politics, wrote in a statement. “Black women are the primary breadwinners of our households, holding our families together with less and less. Our economic well-being, including whether we can get an education, work and earn money to support ourselves and our families, is directly tied to our ability to make decisions about our bodies.”
Dr. Aishat Olatunde, an OB/GYN, was caring for people seeking abortions in a Pennsylvania clinic when news of the Supreme Court decision came in. Olatunde recently finished her training and has been an abortion provider for three years.
The office felt heavy, she said, but she compartmentalized her sadness and frustration to focus on taking care of patients.
“You start your training with such rose colored glasses with this hope to help people,” she said behind tears. “That’s all I want to do.”