A leaked document indicates a majority of US Supreme Court justices planned to support overturning the historic Roe v Wade case law that legalised abortion.
Politico has published a draft ‘opinion’ from the court which they say is a “full-throated” and “unflinching repudiation of the 1973 decision” which guaranteed constitutional protections of abortion rights.
The publication says the judicial opinion was written by Justice Samuel Alito and circulated inside the court.
The document says “Roe was egregiously wrong from the start.”
It is unclear at this stage if the draft represents the court’s final word on the matter.
The Supreme Court has yet to issue an official ruling in the case, and opinions – and even justices’ votes – have been known to change during the drafting process. The court is expected to rule on the case before its term is up in late June or early July.
The revelation has been greeted with dismay from pro-abortion rights’ groups.
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Planned Parenthood tweeted: “While abortion is still legal, tonight’s report makes clear our deepest fears are coming true.
“We have reached a crisis moment for abortion access. We don’t have a moment to spare – we must act now.”
Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said if the decision stood, it would be a “direct assault on the dignity, rights, and lives of women, not to mention decades of settled law.
“It will kill and subjugate women even as a vast majority of Americans think abortion should be legal,” she went on.
“What an utter disgrace.”
In a joint statement, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said: “If the report is accurate, the Supreme Court is poised to inflict the greatest restriction of rights in the past fifty years – not just on women but on all Americans.
“The Republican-appointed Justices’ reported votes to overturn Roe v Wade would go down as an abomination, one of the worst and most damaging decisions in modern history.”
Democratic senator and activist Bernie Sanders said people needed to act “NOW” to “pass legislation that codifies Roe v Wade as the law of the land”.
Fellow Democratic senator Elizabeth Warren described the Supreme Court as “extremist” and said it wanted to “impose its far-right, unpopular views on the entire country”.
Politico published what it said was labelled as a first draft of the “Opinion of the Court” in a case challenging Mississippi’s ban on abortion after 15 weeks, a case known as Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organisation.
The Supreme Court currently has a 6-3 conservative majority. Justice Alito was appointed by former president George W Bush.
Politico says he had signed the draft opinion from February which stated: “Roe was egregiously wrong from the start.
“We hold that Roe and Casey must be overruled,” it adds, referencing the 1992 case Planned Parenthood v Casey that affirmed Roe’s finding of a constitutional right to abortion services – but allowed states to place some constraints on the practice.
Analysis by Greg Milam, US correspondent
The US Supreme Court’s ruling on abortion is one of the most keenly anticipated and potentially consequential in decades of American justice.
That makes the leak of a draft ruling all the more astonishing, and certain to spark a backlash against the court and states who have pushed for a ban on abortion.
The contents of the leaked opinion, written by conservative Justice Samuel Alito, will have come as little surprise to anyone. The conservative leaning of the court these days led most to expect it would side with those Republican states when it delivered its final opinion.
When Donald Trump, as a right of the office of president, had the opportunity to appoint three new justices to the court, many commentators saw the writing on the wall. Abortion was an issue that mattered to Trump voters.
But the unprecedented nature of this leak – hardly anything ever leaks from the inner workings of the Supreme Court, let alone draft opinions – will enrage those seeking to protect the right to seek an abortion.
If the court does, as Alito suggests, overturn the constitutional right to seek an abortion it will be for individual states to ban or restrict it. The ruling would trigger an automatic ban in 13 states, and automatically keep it legal in 17 others.
Campaigners say it poses risks to the health of women across America, when travelling hundreds of miles to states that permit abortion is not feasible.
The Biden administration has been outspoken in its condemnation of laws restricting abortion. The White House and America face a test of how to respond.
The leaking of the report has come amid a legislative push to restrict abortion in several Republican-led states – Oklahoma being the most recent – even before the court issues its decision.
A Supreme Court spokeswoman said the court had no comment.
The leak jumpstarted the intense political debate that the high court’s ultimate decision was expected to have in the midterm election year.
Already politicians on both sides were seizing on it to fundraise and galvanise their supporters on either side of the contentious issue.
A poll in December found Democrats increasingly see protecting abortion rights as a high priority for the government.
Other polling shows relatively few Americans want to see Roe overturned.
In 2020, AP VoteCast found 69% of voters in the presidential election said the Supreme Court should leave the Roe Wade decision as is; just 29% said the court should overturn the decision.
In general, AP-NORC polling finds a majority of the public favours abortion being legal in most or all cases.
Still, when asked about abortion policy generally, Americans have nuanced attitudes on the issue, and many don’t think abortion should be possible after the first trimester or that women should be able to obtain a legal abortion for any reason.
Justice Alito said the court can’t predict how the public might react and shouldn’t try.
“We cannot allow our decisions to be affected by any extraneous influences such as concern about the public’s reaction to our work,” he wrote in the draft opinion, according to Politico.
Until now, the court has allowed states to regulate but not ban abortion before the point of viability, around 24 weeks.
The court’s three liberal justices seemed likely to be in dissent.