#WhatTheFAQ: How was the US Supreme Court able to create a major dent in abortion rights?

The US Supreme Court passed a verdict today that seems to contradict the opinion of a majority of Americans. Today's verdict, however, is a result of decades of political decisions. We explain how
Pic: Edexlive
Pic: Edexlive

The Supreme Court of the United States of America has overturned a landmark decision from 50 years ago that protected the constitutional rights of people to abort pregnancies after 15 weeks as well. The decision was popularly referred to as the Roe v Wade judgement. It was first passed by a local court in the state of Texas in 1969, where abortions had been illegal until then. The judgement was then appealed to the Supreme Court which upheld the decision and the Fourteenth Amendment of the US Constitution that protects the Right to Privacy.

According to the decision, while the government did not have the right to regulate decisions on abortions in the first trimester of pregnancy, it did have the right to regulate it during the second trimester but only to protect maternal health, and not fetal health. The fifteenth week of the pregnancy is the second week of the second trimester, and the Roe v Wade judgement gave people the right to control their decision to abort at this stage as well. In the third trimester, while abortions could be prohibited, the court made exceptions for cases where the life and health of the mother needed to be protected. 

The current Supreme Court overturned this precedent in favour of an extremely strict anti-abortion law from the state of Mississippi that completely outlaws abortion after 15 weeks of gestation. Called the Gestational Age Act, it does not allow exceptions to this rule even in cases of rape and incest.  

However, the debate on abortion rights in the US is not new. Conservative politicians, referring to themselves as "pro-life" candidates have long run on the promise of outlawing Roe v Wade, which, one must remember, was never turned into law by the US's legislative body. The Roe v Wade verdict was passed in 1973 via a 7-2 Supreme Court ruling, which means seven of the judges voted in favour of giving people more control over their decision to abort. 

It took 50 years for that Supreme Court majority to lean towards judges who believed the government should have more control over the reproductive rights of citizens. We take a look at the composition of the US Supreme Court, how judges are elected, and what factors go into their selection.

What is the composition of the US Supreme Court?
The composition and procedures of the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) are governed by the Judiciary Act of 1789 (later 1869). The court is composed of one Chief Justice, and eight associate judges. There is no restriction on eligibility for a seat on the Supreme Court. Even politicians can be nominated and appointed.

What is the tenure of a Supreme Court judge in the US?
A Supreme Court judge, once appointed, has lifetime tenure, which is not limited to the retirement age of 65 years. They can serve until they resign, die, or are removed from office. There are also no term limits. The longest-serving judge of the US Supreme Court was Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr who served for 30 years and retired at the age of 90.

How are the judges appointed?
The judges in the US are appointed by the President in consultation with the Senate, which is the upper house of the US parliament, the Congress. This process is crucial because since judges serve for life, they can control major decisions, such as the Roe v Wade judgement, for decades. 

What happened in 2020 that changed the composition of the Supreme Court?
The decision to appoint a Supreme Court justice is political. It is dictated by the party in control of the presidency and the Senate. In 2020, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away just a few months before the presidential election. At the time, the conservative Republican party was in charge of both the Senate and the presidency with Donald Trump as the president. The Supreme Court was split with five conservative judges and four progressive judges, which included Justice Ginsburg. With her passing, the Republicans found the opportunity to shift the balance of the Supreme Court completely in favour of the conservatives for the first time in 30 years. They rushed through the process of appointment, and put in place another conservative judge on the Supreme Court.

How did this impact the judgement today?
The decision to overturn Roe v Wade was split 5-4. Donald Trump during his term as President appointed three Supreme Court judges, all of whom voted to overturn Roe v Wade. The other two judges who also voted to overturn the 1973 decision were appointed by Republican Presidents George HW Bush and George W Bush in 1991 and 2006 respectively.

Related Stories

No stories found.