20-Week Abortion Bans and the Pathway to the Supreme Court
In the "war on women," 20-week abortion bans have become a rallying point for both pro- and anti-choice camps alike. While Texas' recently-enacted law, which among other things bans abortions after 20 weeks, may have garnered most of the media attention in recent weeks, so far 13 states have passed similar bans, and three states have passed even more restrictive laws, prohibiting abortions as early as six weeks' gestation. Nevertheless, these 20-week abortion bans have been gaining traction.
Much has been written about the politics behind these laws—especially the false claims that they are designed to protect women—but so far, there has been relatively little coverage of the anti-choice litigation strategy in relation to these bans. For instance, how do anti-choice campaigners intend to persuade the Supreme Court to reverse Roe v. Wade? Of all the various state anti-abortion laws, which one is most likely to be used as the test case at the national level?
The Supreme Court won't review its long-standing abortion jurisprudence unless it has to. Given the controversial nature of abortion, a simple appeal from a state to clarify abortion law probably won't prompt the Court to act. (The Oklahoma supreme court recently tried this tactic when it struck down Oklahoma's ultrasound law and practically begged the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case; the Court didn't bite.) What will prompt the Supreme Court to act is a conflict between the laws that apply in one circuit and the laws that apply in another.
"Circuit" is a fancy legal term for a group of states. The country is split into eleven circuits, plus the D.C. Circuit, with one federal appeals court in charge of setting the law for each of the circuits. If one circuit court sets law that is different than the law that applies in another circuit, then a legal mess—or, as it is sometimes called, a "circuit split"—results. And since the Supreme Court likes to have laws that bind the entire country, it will intervene to resolve the circuit split.
The push for 20-week abortion bans is part of a national strategy implemented by anti-choice advocates to create exactly the sort of legal mess that will force the Supreme Court to reconsider Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, and to revisit the viability standard that has served as the constitutional foundation for abortion rights for 40 years.