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EXPLAINER: What is the Mississippi abortion case about?

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As anticipation builds and news coverage increases, both sides of the abortion debate are sounding the alarm that the recognized right to life in our country could be drastically changed as the Supreme Court reconsiders the harmful “viability standard” set in Roe v. Wade and affirmed in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. This challenge to the existing law comes from a Mississippi abortion case called Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization

The Dobbs case is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to affirm life, shift abortion jurisprudence, and send the question of abortion back to the states. For the pro-life movement, this Mississippi abortion case could be the culmination of nearly 50 years of focused work to overturn Roe and protect the unborn. 

What is the Mississippi abortion case about?

In Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Supreme Court is reviewing a Mississippi law titled the “Gestational Age Act” that prohibits abortions after 15 weeks’ gestation, except in a medical emergency and in cases of severe fetal abnormality. This law replaces the ‘viability standard’ created by Roe. The court is examining whether pre-viability restrictions on elective abortions are unconstitutional. 

In Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court admitted that the state has a legitimate interest in protecting unborn human life, but concluded that that interest did not become compelling until viability, because at that point the unborn child “has the capability of meaningful life outside the mother’s womb.” However, the choice of viability as the point before which a state may not forbid abortion is entirely arbitrary. Even the author of Roe and two authors of Casey’s three-justice plurality have admitted this. When the “viability standard” was initially created in 1973, viability was around 28 weeks, but it is now around 21 weeks. The viability line will keep moving as our modern medicine continues to improve. No Supreme Court decision has ever provided a principled justification for the viability standard.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization on Dec. 1, 2021. Now that oral arguments are completed, the court will spend the next few months researching and deliberating about this case. The final decision on what could be a watershed case in American jurisprudence will likely come at the end of next June as the court closes its term. 

Why is the viability standard so important?

The viability standard creates two classes of unborn children — those who are legally protected after viability, and those who aren’t. The Constitution does not create a right to an abortion of an unborn child before viability or at any other stage of pregnancy. The U.S. is one of only seven nations across the globe that allow abortion for any reason after 20 weeks gestation. With each passing day, especially in light of our technological age and the use of the ultrasound, more and more people recognize preborn lives are worthy of protection.

Why is this case so important?

This Mississippi abortion case provides another chance for the court to come to that same conclusion and affirm the fundamental right to life. Even if the Supreme Court overturns the disastrous precedents set in Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, abortion would not become illegal overnight. Instead, each state would then be free to set its own laws banning or allowing abortion. If Roe is overturned, an estimated 26 states will implement complete bans on abortion. This decision, rather than marking the end of the pro-life movement, will instead launch a new chapter as advocates turn their attention to protecting life in statehouses across the country and stopping the proliferation of chemical abortions.

If abortion becomes illegal in many states, many more vulnerable women and their preborn babies will need help and support. Christians must be ready to stand in the gap and provide love and care. Together, we must work toward a day when abortion is not only illegal but also unthinkable. Southern Baptists have long pleaded the case for America to recognize the inherent dignity of our most vulnerable neighbors because Scripture tells us that every single life has innate dignity, worth, and value.