Justices debate abortion rights in U.S. Supreme Court showdown

By Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday began hearing arguments in a case on whether to gut abortion rights in America as it weighs Mississippi’s bid to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized the procedure nationwide.

The court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, is hearing at least 70 minutes of oral arguments in the southern state’s appeal to revive its ban on abortion starting at 15 weeks of pregnancy. Lower courts blocked the Republican-backed law.

Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the only abortion clinic in Mississippi, challenged the law and has the support of Democratic President Joe Biden’s administration. A ruling is expected by the end of next June.

Roe v. Wade recognized that the right to personal privacy under the U.S. Constitution protects a woman’s ability to terminate her pregnancy. The Supreme Court in a 1992 ruling called Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey reaffirmed abortion rights and prohibited laws imposing an “undue burden” on abortion access.

Liberal Justice Stephen Breyer quoted from the Supreme Court’s Casey ruling, which stated that the court should not bow to political pressure in overturning Roe and that such a ruling would “subvert the court’s legitimacy.”

“The right of a woman to choose, the right to control her own body, has been clearly set since Casey and never challenged. You want us to reject that line of viability and adopt something different,” liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor said.

Sotomayor said Mississippi brought its new challenge purely because of changes on the Supreme Court, which has become more conservative.

“Will this institution survive the stench this creates?” Sotomayor asked, saying that it would give the impression that the Constitution and its interpretation is based purely on politics. “If people think it is all political … how will the court survive?”

Anti-abortion advocates believe they are closer than ever to overturning Roe, a longstanding goal for Christian conservatives.

Mississippi’s is one of a series of restrictive abortion laws passed in Republican-governed states in recent years. The Supreme Court on Nov. 1 heard arguments over a Texas law banning abortion at around six weeks of pregnancy but has not yet issued a ruling.

Hundreds of protesters from both sides of the abortion debate rallied outside the white marble neoclassical courthouse ahead of the arguments. Anti-abortion protesters held huge signs reading “abortion is murder,” some carrying Christian crosses. Abortion rights activists chanted “what do we want? Abortion access. When do we want it? Now.”

FETAL VIABILITY

The Roe and Casey decisions determined that states cannot ban abortion before a fetus is viable outside the womb, generally viewed by doctors as between 24 and 28 weeks.

Conservative Chief Justice John Roberts questioned whether viability was a central issue in the Roe or Casey rulings.

Mississippi’s 15-week ban directly challenged the viability finding. Even if the court does not explicitly overturn Roe, any ruling letting states ban abortion before fetal viability outside the womb would raise questions about how early states could prohibit the procedure. In the 1992 Casey ruling, the court said Roe’s “central holding” was that viability was the earliest point at which states could ban abortion.

While urging the court to overturn Roe, Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch, a Republican, has said the justices could uphold its law by finding that a 15-week ban does not impose an undue burden. Such a ruling would wipe out the viability standard embraced in the Roe and Casey decisions, meaning the justices would have to consider where to draw the line.

Abortion rights advocates have said such a decision would eviscerate Roe, making it easier for conservative states to impose sweeping abortion restrictions.

Mississippi is among 12 states with so-called trigger laws designed to ban abortion if Roe v. Wade is overturned. Additional states also likely would move quickly to curtail abortion access.

If Roe were overturned or limited, large swathes of America could return to an era in which women who want to end a pregnancy face the choice of undergoing a potentially dangerous illegal abortion, traveling long distances to a state where the procedure remains legal and available or buying abortion pills online. The procedure would remain legal in liberal-leaning states, 15 of which have laws protecting abortion rights.

Abortion remains a contentious issue in the United States, as in many countries. In a June Reuters/Ipsos poll, 52% of U.S. adults said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 36% said it should be illegal in most or all cases.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung; Additional reporting by Gabriella Borter, Jan Wolfe and Julia Harte; Editing by Will Dunham)

Potential Trump Supreme Court pick Barrett known for conservative religious views

By Andrew Chung and Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – In considering Amy Coney Barrett for the U.S. Supreme Court, President Donald Trump has turned to a federal appellate judge known for conservative religious views who liberals worry could become instrumental in rolling back abortion rights.

Barrett, if nominated by Trump and confirmed by the Senate for a lifetime post on the Supreme Court, would replace liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died at age 87 on Friday. Barrett, 48, would give conservatives a 6-3 majority.

A devout Roman Catholic, Barrett is a favorite among religious conservatives. Trump in 2017 appointed Barrett to the Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, one of the regional appeals courts that are one step below the Supreme Court. On the 7th Circuit, she has voted in favor of one of Trump’s hardline immigration policies and shown support for expansive gun rights.

During her 2017 confirmation hearing for her current post, U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein told Barrett, “The dogma lives loudly within you.” Barrett told the senators that her religious faith would not affect her decisions as a judge.

Abortion rights groups have expressed concern that on the Supreme Court she could help overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide.

Although she has not yet ruled directly on abortion as a judge, Barrett on the 7th Circuit twice signaled opposition to rulings that struck down abortion-related restrictions, voting to have those decisions reconsidered.

In 2018, Barrett was among the 7th Circuit judges who sought reconsideration of a decision that invalidated a Republican-backed Indiana law requiring that fetal remains be buried or cremated after an abortion. The Supreme Court in 2019 reinstated the law.

In 2019, Barrett also voted for rehearing of a three-judge panel’s ruling that upheld a challenge to another Republican-backed Indiana abortion law before it went into effect. The measure would require that parents be notified when a girl under 18 is seeking an abortion even in situations in which she has asked a court to provide consent instead of her parents, as was allowed under existing law. The Supreme Court in July tossed out the ruling and ordered the matter to be reconsidered.

In June, Barrett dissented when a three-judge panel ruled in favor of a challenge to Trump’s policy to deny legal permanent residency to certain immigrants deemed likely to require government assistance in the future. In January, the Supreme Court, powered by its conservative majority, allowed the policy to take effect.

Barrett indicated support for gun rights in a 2019 dissent when she objected to the court ruling that a nonviolent felon could be permanently prohibited from possessing a firearm.

“Founding-era legislatures did not strip felons of the right to bear arms simply because of their status as felons,” Barrett wrote.

CONSERVATIVE RECORD

Barrett, born in New Orleans, received her law degree from Notre Dame Law School, a Catholic institution in Indiana.

Barrett’s extensive prior writings about religion, the role of judges and how courts should treat important legal precedents made her a favorite among social conservatives and conservative Christian leaders even before she became a judge.

After serving as a Supreme Court clerk for Justice Antonin Scalia, a stalwart conservative who died in 2016, and working at a couple of law firms, Barrett returned to Notre Dame as a professor until joining the bench.

Through her past writings, some critics have suggested she would be guided by her religious beliefs rather than the law. In a 1998 law journal article she and another author said that Catholic judges who are faithful to their church’s teachings are morally precluded from enforcing the death penalty and should recuse themselves in certain cases.

Abortion rights groups, worried about preserving the 1973 ruling that a woman has a constitutional right to have an abortion, point to a 2003 law journal article in which Barrett argued that courts could be more flexible in overturning prior “errors” in precedent.

Barrett has also spoken publicly about her conviction that life begins at conception, according to a 2013 article in Notre Dame Magazine.

She is married to Jesse Barrett, a lawyer in private practice and a former federal prosecutor in Indiana. They have seven children, two of whom were adopted from Haiti.

Barrett and her family have been members of a Christian religious group called People of Praise, according to other members.

Craig Lent, the group’s overall coordinator, said in 2018 that the organization, which is officially ecumenical but whose membership is mostly Catholic, centers on close Christian bonds and looking out for one another. They also share a preference for charismatic worship, which can involve speaking in tongues.

Certain leadership positions are reserved for men. And while married men receive spiritual and other advice from other male group members, married women depend on their husbands for the same advice, Lent said.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung and Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Téa Kvetenadze; Editing by Will Dunham)

Kentucky Senate passes bill restricting abortion procedure

FILE PHOTO: Republican Governor Matt Bevin of Kentucky speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland, U.S., February 23, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

By Steve Bittenbender

(Reuters) – The Kentucky Senate overwhelmingly approved legislation on Thursday to ban a common abortion procedure once the patient reaches her 11th week of pregnancy, in what would amount to one of the strictest abortion limits yet in the United States.

The Senate voted 31-5 in favor of the measure, which now goes back to the state’s House of Representatives for final approval of changes to a version of the bill it passed 71-11 vote on March 12. Both bodies are controlled by Republicans.

The procedure in question, called dilation and evacuation, accounts for 16 percent of all abortions performed in Kentucky. It is primarily for pregnancies in the second trimester.

The House and Senate are in recess until March 27.

On Monday, Mississippi’s governor signed into law the most restrictive abortion measure enacted in the United States, which bans any type of procedure once pregnancies reach 15 weeks.

But on Tuesday, a U.S. federal judge blocked the law from taking effect for 10 days, pending legal arguments over whether the injunction should remain in effect while the overall case remains under judicial review.

The Kentucky and Mississippi measures both allow medical emergency procedures that otherwise would be prohibited.

Representatives for Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin, a Republican who has described himself as “100 percent pro-life,” could not be reached immediately for comment.

Since last year, when Republicans won control of the Kentucky House for the first time since 1921, the state’s legislature has passed several measures to restrict access to abortion, including banning any type of abortion after the 20th week of pregnancy.

Representative Addia Wuchner, a Republican, tweeted after a state Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, that her bill protects “unborn children in Kentucky from intentional bodily dismemberment”.

But critics say that the bill will almost certainly face a legal challenge. Last year, a similar measure passed by Texas lawmakers was struck down by a federal judge.

Similar bans in other states including Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas and Oklahoma have also been struck down by courts.

“Kentucky can’t afford doomed legislation created out of willful ignorance,” Marcie Crim, executive director of the Kentucky Health Justice Network, said on Twitter. “We need every dime of our money to go towards real improvements, not grandstanding.”

While dilation and evacuation is used in most second-trimester abortions, nearly 90 percent of all abortions are performed in the first trimester, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights.

(Reporting by Steve Bittenbender in Louisville, Kentucky; Editing by Bernie Woodall and Richard Borsuk)