On December 1st, the Supreme Court had its day of oral argument in a landmark abortion case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, brought by the State of Mississippi. It was the first case that the Court had taken in thirty years in which the petitioners were explicitly asking the Justices to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision legalizing abortion, and its successor, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which affirmed that decision in 1992. If anyone needed a reminder that, whatever the Justices decide in Dobbs, it will not reconcile the American divide over abortion, the chaotic scene outside the Court made it clear. At the base of the marble steps, reproductive-rights supporters held a large rally in which they characterized abortion as a human right—and an act of health care. Pramila Jayapal, a Democratic U.S. representative from Washington State, described herself as “one of the one in four women in America who have had an abortion,” adding, “Terminating my pregnancy was not an easy choice, but it was my choice.” Jayapal could barely be heard, though, over the anti-abortion protesters who had also gathered, in even greater numbers. The day was sunny and mild, and though some of these demonstrators offered the usual angry admonishments—“God is going to punish you, murderer!” a man with a megaphone declaimed—most members of the anti-abortion contingent seemed buoyant. Busloads of students from Liberty University, an evangelical college in Lynchburg, Virginia, snapped selfies in their matching red-white-and-blue jackets. Penny Nance, the head of the conservative group Concerned Women for America, exclaimed, “This is our moment! This is why we’ve marched all these years!”
A major reason for Nance’s optimism was the presence on the bench of Amy Coney Barrett, the former Notre Dame law professor and federal-court judge whom President Donald Trump had picked to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died on September 18, 2020. With the help of Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, Trump had accelerated Barrett’s nomination process, and the Senate confirmed her just a week before the 2020 Presidential election. As a candidate in the 2016 election, Trump had vowed to appoint Justices who would overturn Roe, and as President he had made it a priority to stock the judiciary with conservative judges—especially younger ones. According to an analysis by the law professors David Fontana, of the George Washington University, and Micah Schwartzman, of the University of Virginia, Trump’s nominees to the federal courts of appeals—bodies that, like the Supreme Court, confer lifetime tenure—were the youngest of any President’s “since at least the beginning of the 20th century.” Trump made three Supreme Court appointments, and Neil Gorsuch (forty-nine when confirmed) and Brett Kavanaugh (fifty-three) were the youngest of the nine Justices until Barrett was sworn in, at the age of forty-eight. Her arrival gave the conservative wing of the Court a 6–3 supermajority—an imbalance that won’t be altered by the recent news that one of the three liberal Justices, Stephen Breyer, is retiring.