What it was like at the Supreme Court during Mississippi abortion case arguments

Dec 1, 2021
Originally published on December 10, 2021 8:34 am
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Today, the Supreme Court heard a case that could ultimately reverse the constitutional right to an abortion. The justices are considering a Mississippi law that bans the procedure after 15 weeks. But the state of Mississippi argued further that the court's previous decisions establishing the right to an abortion were wrongly decided.

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SCOTT STEWART: Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey haunt our country. They have no basis in the Constitution. They have no home in our history or traditions.

SHAPIRO: That's Mississippi Solicitor General Scott Stewart. And one of those fighting to keep abortion legal is Hillary Schneller of the Center for Reproductive Rights. She is the co-lead attorney on this case and was in the courtroom today. Good to have you with us.

HILLARY SCHNELLER: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Today's arguments left many with the impression that the justices will hollow out Roe, if not overturn it altogether. Is that your sense after your team fielded questions from the nine members of the court?

SCHNELLER: Well, I mean, I think it's always a little difficult to read the tea leaves. I think our takeaway was that my colleague, Julie Rikelman, as well as the solicitor general for the United States, were able to get out all of the arguments that we wanted to today, to emphasize for the court that, you know, the right to abortion is critical for women's equality. And there would be tremendous harm and chaos if the court accepted Mississippi's radical request to overturn Roe and Casey, which have been, you know, foundational, important rights for millions of people for 50 years.

SHAPIRO: This case has been decades in the making. Abortion rights opponents have been laying the groundwork for a very long time. And so I want to ask you a question that I put to Mississippi's former governor earlier this week. If this is the case that tips the scales and ends the constitutional right to abortion, what will it mean to you to have been at the center of that?

SCHNELLER: I mean, we are focusing on the fact that we have done everything, you know, humanly possible to advocate for our clients, Jackson Women's Health Organization, you know, the last remaining abortion clinic in Mississippi, as well as thousands of people who have made the decision whether to continue a pregnancy in their lifetimes. It's - you know, I'd rather be in this fight than not. So it's been an honor to continue to do that, you know, to the fullest extent that we can.

SHAPIRO: How do your clients feel today went?

SCHNELLER: Well, one of our clients, Shannon Brewer, the director of Jackson Women's Health Organization, spoke at the rally outside the court. And she was energized by, you know, the show of support for her clinic and for, you know, all of the patients that they serves in Mississippi, as well as, you know, folks from other states who, in particular, given the ban that has been in effect in Texas for several months now, who are traveling now to Mississippi. The clinic has really been a haven for a lot of folks, and I think she felt, you know, energized and really supported by all the folks outside the court today.

SHAPIRO: If the justices do side with the state of Mississippi, there are few possible paths they could take. Will you first walk us through what would happen if the justices were to adopt the most sweeping argument, that there is no constitutional right to abortion? What would the immediate consequences across the U.S. be?

SCHNELLER: Well, we know that half the states in the country are poised to ban abortion if the floor that Roe provides is no longer there. So that is, you know, incredible chaos and devastation for, you know, thousands of people who are making this decision. In states across the South and Midwest, it would force people who have the means to travel to a place where abortion remains legal. But for many, you know, people on low incomes, communities of color who are already challenged in getting access to abortion, you know, won't be able to actually make that happen.

SHAPIRO: And if the justices were to issue a more narrow ruling siding with the state of Mississippi, upholding the law that bans abortions after 15 weeks without entirely rejecting the idea of a constitutional right, what would the implications of that be?

SCHNELLER: So I think, you know, it's a little tricky to, again, read the tea leaves. But the arguments we've made in this case are that there really is no middle ground here. To uphold a 15-week ban is to overturn the viability line that is central to Roe and Casey. There's no principle distinction between a 15-week ban and a 12-week ban and a 10-week ban. And I'm not just sort of stewing hypotheticals. States have passed bans on abortion at virtually every point in pregnancy. They're all blocked because of Roe. And without that floor, you know, we would see states continue to try to enforce those bans.

SHAPIRO: Just in our last 30 seconds or so, as you look long term at the next five, 10 years, what do you think the strategy of abortion rights supporters such as yourself ought to be?

SCHNELLER: I think it is both in the courts and in legislatures and in the public to make clear that this right to make fundamental decisions about our bodies must be with the individual and not with the government.

SHAPIRO: Hilary Schneller, senior staff attorney for the Center for Reproductive Rights, thank you for your time today.

SCHNELLER: Thank you so much.

SHAPIRO: And in another part of the program, we hear from an abortion rights opponent. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.