A case heard by the Supreme Court on Wednesday has the potential to gut or overturn the ruling from the Roe v. Wade case that has determined abortion rights across the country for nearly 50 years.
The justices listened to oral arguments for 90 minutes related to a Mississippi law that would undercut the Roe v. Wade ruling if it's upheld or potentially lead to it being overruled, a seismic change to the court's landmark ruling in 1973.
"It’s hard to think of something in the modern history of the United States that will be more epic than a ruling that either overrules or severely limits Roe v. Wade," Tom Goldstein, co-founder and publisher of SCOTUSblog, said on TODAY Thursday. "It’s so central to our understanding of what the Supreme Court is and does."
Here’s what you need to know about the case that could dramatically change the American landscape when it comes to abortion.
What is the case that is being heard?
The Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization case involves a Mississippi state law that was passed in 2018 but blocked by lower courts. The law would ban abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy, undercutting decades of rulings saying a state can’t ban abortion before a fetus is viable, at around 23 to 24 weeks into a pregnancy.
It would only allow abortions after 15 weeks in the case of medical emergency or severe fetal abnormality.
The Roe v. Wade ruling and the Planned Parenthood v. Casey ruling in 1992 held that a state cannot ban abortion before fetal viability.
After the Supreme Court agreed to hear the Mississippi case, the state added that it believes the rulings in Roe and Casey should be overturned.
“Nothing in constitutional text, structure, history, or tradition supports a right to abortion,” the state told the court.
What did the justices say about it after hearing the oral arguments?
A majority of the court's conservative-leaning justices appeared to indicate they would uphold the Mississippi law banning abortion after 15 weeks, but it's unclear if they would support outright overturning Roe v. Wade as a group.
"If it really is an issue about choice, why is 15 weeks not enough time?" Chief Justice John Roberts said.
“Can’t a decision be overruled because it was wrong when it was decided?” Justice Samuel Alito asked.
“If I were to ask you what constitutional right protects the right to abortion, is it privacy?” Justice Clarence Thomas asked. “Is it autonomy? What would it be?”
“Why should this court be the arbiter rather than Congress, the state legislatures, state supreme courts, the people being able to resolve this?” Justice Brett Kavanaugh asked.
Justice Amy Coney Barrett said that previous rulings allowing access to abortion "emphasize the burdens of parenting" but that those burdens are now irrelevant because of "safe haven" laws that allow women to put babies up for adoption and relinquish parental rights at birth.
"You emphasized that if 15 weeks were approved, then we’d have cases about 12 and 10 and 8 and 6, and so my question is, is there a line in there that the government believes would be principled or not?” Justice Neil Gorsuch asked.
The court's three liberal-leaning judges feared the court would be seen as a purely political body and not an impartial one if it upholds the Mississippi law.
"Will this institution survive the stench that this creates in the public perception that the Constitution and its reading are just political acts?" Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked.
“It is particularly important to show that what we do in overturning a case is grounded in principle and not social pressure,” Justice Stephen Breyer said.
“This is part of our law. … This is part of the fabric of women’s existence in this country," Justice Elena Kagan said.
What happens if the Mississippi law is upheld by the Supreme Court?
The Mississippi state government has already indicated that it would ban abortion outright in the state if the 2018 law is upheld by the nation's highest court.
Abortion-rights advocates say that doing away with the rule that states cannot ban abortion before viability could embolden about half the states in the country to pursue local laws making abortion illegal.
At least a dozen states already have bans on the books that would go into law the moment the court’s abortion precedents were overturned.
Texas already passed a law that all but bans abortions by limiting them to ones where the pregnancy is under six weeks, a time when many women don't know if they are pregnant. It only makes exceptions for "medical emergencies."
The Department of Justice is currently suing Texas over the law.
When will the Supreme Court make its ruling?
Decisions in complex, high-profile cases like this one usually aren't rendered until the end of the term, which most likely means late June or early July 2022.