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Roe v. Wade abortion ruling: Questions and answers about the Supreme Court decision

Here are answers to some pressing questions about the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the landmark 1973 ruling.
Photo illustration: Images of birth control pill dispenser, a protestor with a megaphone outside the Supreme Court, close-up of Joe Biden's eye, sign that reads,"Keep abortion legal" and protestors holding up letters that read,"My choice".
The Supreme Court voted 5-4 to overturn Roe v. Wade, ending the constitutional right to abortion.NBC News / Getty Images

The Supreme Court’s decision last week to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling, guaranteed a constitutional right to abortion, will have wide-ranging impacts. About half of states have either already banned abortion or indicated that they soon will, meaning millions of women will no longer have easy access to abortion services.

Still, many things remain uncertain, including whether bans will stand up to legal challenges, whether access to abortion pills will become the next target and if the ban on abortion will lead to attacks on other constitutional rights like same-sex marriage.

Here are answers to some pressing questions surrounding the Supreme Court’s decision.

How did we get here?

The Supreme Court agreed last year to consider Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the most serious challenge to Roe in decades. That case challenged a law in Mississippi that banned most abortions after 15 weeks.

Who voted to overturn Roe?

The court ruled 6-3 to uphold Mississippi’s abortion ban and voted 5-4 to overturn Roe. The five members voting in support of ending Roe were Donald Trump appointees Amy Coney Barrett, Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch, as well as Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, who were appointed by George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, respectively.

“It is time to heed the Constitution and return the issue of abortion to the people’s elected representatives,” Alito wrote in the majority opinion, which also called the original Roe decision “egregiously wrong and deeply damaging.”

Which states have bans?

Abortion bans went into effect or were scheduled to soon be enacted in 13 states that had “trigger laws” after the ruling was handed down on Friday. At least 22 states are likely to institute bans, according to an NBC News analysis of Center for Reproductive Rights. Meanwhile, the Guttmacher Institute, another abortion rights advocacy group, found that 26 states are considered certain or likely to ban abortion.

Already, there has been legal fallout. Judges in Louisiana and Utah on Monday issued a temporary restraining orders prohibiting those states from enforcing their bans. The order led to the immediate resumption of procedures in Louisiana.

Are there exceptions to the bans for cases of rape and incest?

Exceptions for rape and incest are uncommon. Among the 41 abortion bans likely to be implemented in 26 states, only 10 have exceptions for rape and incest, the Guttmacher Institute found. Meeting the qualifications for those exceptions is expected to be difficult. For instance, in Utah, victims of sexual assault would have to file a police report, a high bar given that more than 2 out of 3 sexual assaults go unreported.

What happens if someone violates a ban?

States with abortion bans have focused punishment on the providers and not those seeking an abortion. While penalties vary, prosecutors in states with abortion bans could charge abortion providers with some class of felony. Punishments include fines, prison time and revocation of medical licenses. 

Some legal and privacy experts fear that evidence could include text messages, internet search history and period tracking apps, as well as, perhaps, information gathered from medical professionals.

There has been pushback against plans to prosecute. Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers said he would grant clemency to anyone charged under his state’s 1849 law banning abortions.

And some prosecutors have said they would refuse to prosecute those seeking, assisting or providing abortions. The prosecutors from 29 states, territories and Washington, D.C., signed a joint statement that said, in part, that enforcing abortion bans would “hinder our ability to hold perpetrators accountable, take resources away from the enforcement of serious crime, and inevitably lead to the retraumatization and criminalization of victims of sexual violence.”

Can a person living in a state with a ban still get an abortion?

Yes, people who live in states with bans can still receive care in states where abortion is legal. But it won’t be easy. People who live in states with bans face long trips. NBC News analyzed the distance to the nearest open abortion clinic from major cities in 21 states that either have pre-existing or pending state-level abortion bans that will go into effect. It would take a person in those cities four hours by car on average to reach a clinic in a state where abortion is legal.

What does the end of Roe mean for abortion pills?

There could be legal battles to come over whether abortion pills fall under abortion bans. Attorney General Merrick Garland has said the Justice Department would fight any Republican efforts to restrict access to abortion pills because the medications are federally approved.

Still, it will be more challenging to obtain abortion pills in states with bans. Abortion bans will force clinics to close, cutting off one source of pills. But those seeking abortions could travel to a different state or have pills shipped by mail from out of state or out of the country. 

Will I still have access to birth control?

The court’s decision does not directly affect access to contraception. However, some experts fear that birth control methods such as Plan B and potentially IUDs that prevent implantation could draw legal challenges.

Can Congress or the Biden administration do anything?

President Joe Biden said his administration would defend women who want to travel to another state for an abortion and protect access to contraception and abortion pills. But, he said, protecting abortion rights is up to Congress and voters. A previous attempt by Democrats in Congress to advance legislation that would guarantee access to abortion nationwide was blocked last month in a largely party-line vote. 

Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Tina Smith urged Biden, in an op-ed published by The New York Times, to declare a public health emergency to unlock “critical resources and authority that states and the federal government can use to meet the surge in demand for reproductive health services.”