As Roe is overturned by the Supreme Court, a moment of profound transformation in America

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The day that carved a line between the past and the future turned out to be a summer Friday in June, a day long awaited by some and much feared by others, the day that marked the end of nearly 50 years of a constitutional right to abortion in the United States.

For abortion opponents, the Supreme Court’s decision Friday to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark case that legalized abortion in 1973, was met with celebration. There were tears of joy, grateful prayers, holidays from work.

For supporters of abortion rights, there was grief and rage and grim determination. By evening, demonstrations had erupted in cities across the country, with protesters vowing to fight for access to abortions just as prior generations of women once did.

Whatever their views on abortion, it was a moment of profound transformation for millions of Americans. In at least 13 states, abortion will be banned in nearly all cases within days. Meanwhile, leaders of other states pledged to protect it.

Around the country, Americans began to grapple with a fundamentally altered landscape for reproductive rights and prepare for new battles ahead.

For days, the tensions had been palpable at the lone abortion clinic in Mississippi at the center of the Supreme Court case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Antiabortion protesters and clinic escorts squared off daily in 90-degree heat.

At 9 a.m. local time Friday, Coleman Boyd, an abortion opponent, began preaching to the assembled journalists over a loudspeaker. Ten minutes later, Doug Lane, a fellow protester, jogged by. “Roe is overturned,” Lane said. “Thank you, Lord.” Coleman continued preaching.

Clinic escorts, who are known as the Pink House Defenders, gathered under a tent, looking at their phones. Three appeared from the clinic’s driveway holding speakers. Tom Petty’s ‘Won’t Back Down’ began to fill the air.

Forty minutes after the decision, a van attempted to approach the clinic. A man and a visibly pregnant woman were inside. The couple rolled down the passenger window and a protester began talking to them. “He’s telling them abortion is now illegal,” said one of the clinic escorts.

The van backed up and drove away. The gathered protesters began to cheer.

Minutes later, another car drove up. The same protester again tried to block the road.

“This clinic is open,” screamed Ren Allen, a clinic escort, holding a sign with those words above her head. “This clinic is open. Keep driving, on the right.” The car turned in.

Allen, 24, said it was hard to describe how she felt. “It’s easier to put a quantity to the emotion, which is just a lot,” she said. She was frustrated and angry but promised to keep fighting.

“Taking away hope is kind of like the last frontier,” she said. “When you throw up your hands and you say, ‘There’s nothing I can do,’ that’s when they win.”

It was not long after 8 a.m. and David Turok, an obstetrician and associate professor at the University of Utah, was already at work. He was meeting with patients participating in a study of a male hormonal contraceptive when his phone began to explode with text messages.

For weeks, he’d feared this moment was coming. Turok provides abortions at the Planned Parenthood Association of Utah clinic in Salt Lake City. In 2020, the state passed a “trigger law” that would ban abortion in nearly all cases once Roe was overturned. It could take effect within days.

Asked how he felt, Turok offered only a frustrated laugh.

“When you know an awful thing is coming, a thing that’s going to harm people who are in challenging situations … that’s extremely painful,” said Turok, who emphasized that he was speaking as a private citizen, not a representative of the university or Planned Parenthood. “I feel tremendously for people who are going to be in challenging situations who’ve determined that the best thing for themselves and their family is to end a pregnancy and won’t be able to.”

Turok’s next conversation on Friday was to speak with his partner at the clinic about how to handle the day ahead, a day when more than 20 people were scheduled to come in for abortions.

As a professor, he worried about the ruling’s impact on teaching future generations of doctors. The university’s ability to offer training in how to perform abortions is now in doubt, he said.

Turok said he would keep trying to provide medical residents with the best possible preparation for their field. “You cannot be a complete OB/GYN without knowing how to safely and effectively and compassionately help someone end a pregnancy for a million different reasons,” he said.

At St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Laredo on Friday, a steady stream of worshipers arrived to give thanks, reciting the prayer of Divine Mercy on a day when the diocese’s long-suffering hope was validated.

Charlie San Miguel rolled an old, cherished rosary that belonged to his father through his fingers as he recited the prayer along with about a dozen other worshipers. “The love of God is a flower,” they said in unison. “And mercy is the fruit.”

On Friday morning, San Miguel had been glued to his television waiting for the news. The 54-year-old had attended every antiabortion rally in his border city. He ran for mayor as an antiabortion candidate. His children counseled friends against abortion when they faced unexpected pregnancies.

When the decision was announced, his phone lit up with phone calls and texts. There was only one right response, he felt: “Praise God.”

The next logical step for San Miguel was to go to church. St. Patrick’s is home to some of Laredo’s most powerful and conservative citizens, including the lone antiabortion Democrat in Congress, Rep. Henry Cuellar. In church bulletin after church bulletin, Father Anthony Mendoza makes clear to parishioners that abortion is violence.

San Miguel knows the uncertainty of an unplanned pregnancy. He and his wife Gabriela were high school seniors in the 1980s when she first got pregnant. They were frightened but abortion wasn’t an option for the young Catholics. They went on to have three more children. Now they want to support other young people to make the same decision they did.

“The fruits of this are more beautiful lives,” said San Miguel. “And if they need help, we’ve got to be there.”

Odile Schalit woke up at 5 a.m. on Friday and sat down with a coffee and a smoothie in front of her computer to edit a note to her staff. She needed to convey the enormity of what was about to happen.

Schalit, 37, has worked for abortion rights for more than a decade. In 2016, she was studying for a master’s degree in London and thought her next step might be working abroad. After the presidential election, however, she decided to return home, knowing that the fight over reproductive rights was entering a crucial chapter. “Our country was backsliding,” she said.

Schalit became executive director of the Brigid Alliance, a New York-based organization that was founded in 2018 to provide funds and logistical help to people seeking abortions. Each month, its staff works with about 125 pregnant people who must travel more than 1000 miles, on average, to access care.

The group is planning to increase its staff from 10 to 15 but anticipates that the number of people seeking help in the wake of Friday’s ruling will far outstrip their ability to assist.

“It’s critical that we be honest with ourselves right now,” she said, particularly about “the ripple effects on communities disproportionately affected by this decision” — including those with low incomes and people of color.

After the ruling was announced, Schalit’s colleagues located across the country gathered online for half an hour, creating a space for people to grieve and breathe. Most were quiet. Some asked practical questions about the ruling.

Schalit said the group was briefly pausing its work to understand how to operate safely at a time when the legal landscape is in flux and increasingly hostile to those who help pregnant people access abortion. But they are committed to restarting quickly.

After the weeks of dread, the full impact of Friday’s ruling had yet to settle in, Schalit said. “This crisis has been brewing for a very long time,” she said. “We have many days before us and need to sustain ourselves.”

At home in Tallahassee, Andrew Shirvell was overcome with emotion as he considered that the movement he had worked on for a quarter-century — ever since he was a freshman in college — had achieved a victory some had thought was impossible.

Shirvell, founder and executive director of Florida Voice for the Unborn, said he had been agitating to overturn Roe and ban abortion since 1998.

To be able to witness Friday’s decision is “just tremendous,” said Shirvell, 42, in an interview. “This is the first time I’m choking up, because it’s actually the first time I’m really stopping and thinking about my own personal thoughts on it.”

Shirvell moved to Florida in 2013 from Michigan, where he was an assistant attorney general before being fired and disbarred for anti-gay actions. In 2020, he founded his current antiabortion group.

For years, even those in the antiabortion movement did not believe that Roe would be overturned, Shirvell said. “It’s really starting to hit home that what we’ve been working on for decades has come to pass,” he said.

He wasn’t pausing to celebrate. Shirvell’s near-term goal is to enact an abortion ban in Florida. But he said the next battle for the antiabortion movement nationwide should be to push courts to recognize that personhood begins at conception, Shirvell said.

“That would have to come from the U.S. Supreme Court itself,” he said, something he predicted was “maybe a decade or two away.”

Laura Brown, 34, comes from a long line of Southern women. Many of them did not have a choice over what happened with their bodies after they got pregnant.

Through stories passed down in her family, Brown learned that her great-grandmother was raped in Alabama during the Great Depression. She became pregnant and was forced to marry her rapist. Other women in the family were teenagers when they became pregnant in the pre-Roe era, Brown said, and their own parents made them endure dangerous practices to induce miscarriages. Another relative almost died during an illegal abortion.

Brown lives in East Nashville and recently received her master’s in business administration. On Friday, she was in a strategy meeting over Zoom at the start-up where she works when she learned that Roe had been struck down.

She was so upset she could barely talk about it. “To know that I suddenly no longer have the same freedoms as my parents’ generation, to know that I would now be forced to carry a rapist’s baby in Tennessee, feels like more than just a gut punch,” Brown said.

In Tennessee, nearly all abortions will become illegal within a month. Although Brown has spent most of her life in the state, she doesn’t think she will call it home for much longer. Brown was already considering a move and Friday’s ruling cemented her resolve. “I cannot, in good conscience,” she said, “live in and contribute to a state that doesn’t recognize my right to make medical decisions for myself.”

The future of abortion access looks like an unremarkable office park close enough to the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport that commercial jets roar overhead as they take off and land.

The clinic is called Whole Woman’s Health of Minnesota and opened in February as part of a national network that helps people who lack access to abortion in their own states find help in terminating their pregnancies.

On Friday morning, the clinic’s phones began to ring nonstop, according to staff. On the line were women in states where abortion is about to be outlawed, trying to find appointments in a state where abortions remain legal.

In recent months, around 30 percent of the clinic’s patients have been from out of state, said Sean Mehl, the associate director of clinical services. He believes that in the post-Roe era, that proportion will rise.

The clinic sits just off Interstate 35, which runs from northern Minnesota all the way to the Mexican border in Texas. An increasing number of patients have driven north using that route, said Mehl, including women from Texas, where all but extremely early abortions have been banned for months.

The clinic has expanded its hours through July to accommodate people whose procedures in other states might be canceled at the last minute because of the overturning of Roe. “Our schedule is already pretty full, but we are doing what we can to get people in,” Mehl said.

At the clinic, Friday’s ruling was met with dismay but not shock. The decision felt “inevitable,” Mehl said.