June Medical: Precedent and Women’s Constitutional Rights Stand—For Now.

Last week the Supreme Court announced its long-awaited decision in June Medical Services v. Russo, striking down an anti-choice Louisiana law and reaffirming abortion rights.

Considering the disappointment of recent years and especially the hardship of recent months and weeks, I, like many, had been bracing for a different decision. 

Women’s rights are always at risk, but the danger feels ineffably tense: We are in the middle of a global pandemic to which conservative lawmakers are arguably negligent; we face an unprecedented public health and economic crisis that is disproportionately harming women; and anti-choice activists and lawmakers remain laser-focused on eroding access to reproductive healthcare.

The morning of the Court’s decision, as I read the same tweet 10 times to be sure I wasn’t mistaken, I sat at my messy kitchen table equal parts relieved and hopeful about the important win, and enraged and fearful about how temporary and incomplete it is. 

The relief was real. This is a significant decision at a significant moment in time. June Medical was a case nearly identical to Whole Women’s Health, which the Court heard four years ago and decided in favor of abortion rights. The cases were so similar, experts were shocked the Court even agreed to hear it.

June Medical: Precedent and Women’s Constitutional Rights Stand—For Now.
Outside the Supreme Court during Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt arguments in March 2016. (Lorie Shaull / Flickr)

A different decision would have left a single abortion clinic standing in Louisiana, ultimately regulating abortion out of existence in the state and leaving poor women and women of color without access. The law would also have had wide-ranging implications for future reproductive rights cases and would have significantly undermined an already weakened Roe v. Wade. The 5-4 decision assured that—at least for the time being—precedent and women’s constitutional rights stand. 

But the relief is muted, as the environment for reproductive health, rights and justice could not be more hostile. A number of cases currently sit with the lower courts and could make their way to the Supreme Court, with more lined up behind them.

Just a couple weeks ago, Republicans in Tennessee used a surprise midnight vote to pass a harmful bill that originated with the governor. It outlaws abortion at as early as six weeks, and also requires abortion clinics to tell patients that medication abortion is reversible (it’s not), and bans abortion for young women in foster care. Tennessee is one of seven states across the country that have trigger laws in place that would immediately outlaw abortion if Roe is overturned. 

Today, abortion is a right in name only for too many. And for Black and Brown women, a lack of abortion access in the context of persistent racism in our medical system and our social and economic systems more broadly is just one of many threats to reproductive justice. 

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It’s impossible to detach the June Medical decision—and the continued threats to bodily autonomy—from the backdrop of gender inequality that is raging in the COVID-19 era. Women are experiencing record levels of unemployment, irrecoverable job losses and not-so-temporary career setbacks as some of us juggle working from home (a privilege, for sure) while caring for children full time.

Our safety net, built on a foundation of racism—and gendered racism specifically—is now in tatters and has left families without sufficient and reliable income, health and housing supports and any kind of affordable child care.

The current situation is dire for many women and families—but lots of them were on the brink long before our lawmakers allowed the pandemic to wreak havoc on our economy. And the politicians who are indifferent to the health and economic calamity facing women and families are busy working to make it harder and harder for us to achieve reproductive justice: to prevent pregnancies, to raise healthy children and protect them from violence as they become adults, to survive pregnancy and childbirth, and to end our pregnancies when we deem it necessary. 

It’s not just our reproductive autonomy they’re after—it’s our freedom, period.

How many lawmakers have slapped each other on the back and chuckled that the silver lining of COVID is that women are finally back home “where they belong”? That we don’t dismiss this scene as one that could only possibly take place in a future episode of “The Handmaid’s Tale” says a lot about the moment we are in and how dangerous it is for women and their families. 

June Medical: Precedent and Women’s Constitutional Rights Stand—For Now.
In front of the Supreme Court during oral arguments for June Medical Services v. Russo on March 4. (Victoria Pickering / Flickr)

The recent Supreme Court win feels both sweeter and bitter because it comes at a time when it’s increasingly difficult to feel like the dystopian future we all have been fearing isn’t actually our current reality.

Abortion Access Erosion

Unrelenting efforts to erode abortion access is just the tip of the iceberg in conservatives’ efforts to control women’s bodies.

In recent months, the Trump administration has instituted sweeping changes to Title X—the federal family planning program that have forced many providers to close or reduce hours or services.

The Supreme Court recently heard a case that strikes at the heart of the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate and could significantly expand employers’ ability to restrict birth control access.

As if that wasn’t enough—and as if we weren’t in the middle of an unprecedented public health crisis—the Trump administration recently asked the Supreme Court to fully strike down the ACA. For all its faults, we must remember that the ACA has significantly raised the floor of coverage and health access for women: outlawing gender discrimination in health care, mandating comprehensive coverage of birth control, eliminating pre-existing conditions restrictions, and expanding coverage for young people.

The elimination of the ACA in the absence of universal health care would be an unmitigated disaster for women, and particularly for women of color.

Women have always known that our health and economic security are two sides of the same coin. COVID, and our government’s abysmal response to it, has made that clearer than ever: The extent to which our health and economic systems were designed to fail women and people of color is concretely evident. 

“The Slivers of Hope”

In spite—or perhaps because of—the darkness of our recent and current reality, we should hold onto the sliver of hope felt from the recent Supreme Court decision (and others like it).

Anti-choice laws may be proliferating, but the courts are striking many of them down. States like California, New York, Illinois and Nevada—among others—have been expanding access to reproductive health care and protecting abortion access even as others are working to pull us  back to the 1950s.

Conservatives are working hard to prevent people from voting—yet people will stand in line all day to ensure their voices are heard.

Black and Brown Americans are terrorized by police and by our racist health and economic systems—yet for more than a month, Americans have been marching to fight for inclusion and equality and public sentiment about efforts to advance racial justice are changing.

In many ways our social and economic policies of recent decades have made protecting and expanding bodily autonomy feel like an increasingly Sisyphean effort. But while the weight of the boulder feels heavier than ever, it also feels matched by a tireless collective will to push it over the edge. 

Fatima Goss Graves, CEO of the National Women’s Law Center, recently wrote for Cosmopolitan:

We are “demanding an end to this pattern of resettling an argument we won almost 50 years ago. Demanding that our bodies won’t be used to control our lives. Demanding that every person has the resources and ability to get the care they need with safety, equality and dignity. We won’t stop until that’s the reality.”

While the June Medical decision is an incomplete and temporary win, it is a win nonetheless. It should continue to fuel us to demand not only a better system, but a radically different system that facilitates our freedom. We deserve, and should demand, nothing less. 


Andrea Flynn is the senior fellow of health equity at the Maven Collaborative, where she researches and writes about race, gender, health and economic policy. You can find her on Twitter @dreaflynn7.