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'Trigger laws' are abortion bans ready to go if 'Roe v. Wade' is overturned


By the end of this term, the Supreme Court will decide a Mississippi abortion case that might overturn Roe v. Wade. If the justices accept the state's broadest argument, then about half the country could quickly fall under strict abortion bans. That's because of laws that state legislatures have put in place just waiting for a day the Supreme Court decides there is no constitutional right to abortion. NPR's Sarah McCammon is here to explain.

Hi, Sarah.


SHAPIRO: Many states with Republican legislatures have these trigger laws. Explain how exactly they work.

MCCAMMON: So they're designed by abortion rights opponents to get out in front of any major Supreme Court decision on abortion that might allow abortion to be banned or heavily restricted. Elizabeth Nash is a state policy analyst with the Guttmacher Institute, which is a research group that supports abortion rights.

ELIZABETH NASH: A trigger ban is an abortion ban in waiting, essentially. It is a piece of legislation that has been enacted that would ban abortion if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade.

MCCAMMON: And Nash says there's been a rush by several states to pass these laws in response to former President Trump putting three conservative justices on the Supreme Court. And conservative-leaning states sort of saw this opportunity coming. Also, some states still have decades-old anti-abortion laws on the books that were just never repealed after Roe v. Wade became law.

SHAPIRO: Hmm. So walk us through what actually happens if the Supreme Court issues a sweeping ruling in this Mississippi case. How does that ripple out across the country?

MCCAMMON: So according to Guttmacher, 21 states currently have some kind of law on the books that would ban most or all abortions if Roe were fully overturned. Most of these states are in the Midwest and South, some in the Mountain West. Guttmacher estimates that another five states are likely to quickly pass similar laws based on their political climates.

SHAPIRO: And do these laws just go into effect automatically? Like, would a clinic that provides reproductive care in these states have to stop offering abortions the day of the Supreme Court ruling? How does it work?

MCCAMMON: A law is going to depend on how the Supreme Court decision is written. So the Mississippi law that's before the court right now bans most abortions after 15 weeks. And one big question is, if the court upholds that law, will they also allow states to restrict abortion even earlier than 15 weeks? The answer also depends on how each of these state statutes is written. We're talking about these trigger bans. Arkansas has a law that would take effect as soon as a state attorney general certifies that Roe has been overturned, which is somewhat open to interpretation. Now, Steve Aden with Americans United for Life supports these bans in principle, but he cautions that it may not immediately be clear how the court's decision would apply to existing state laws. And he says trigger bans may not be the way to go.

STEVE ADEN: It's better to try that direct approach and to pass laws that are as strenuous and durable constitutionally as they possibly can be.

MCCAMMON: And Aden says after the court issued its opinion, he expects a lot of debate in legislatures around abortion and also some legal challenges depending on what states try to do.

SHAPIRO: I imagine there will also be debate in legislatures controlled by Democrats. How are more liberal states preparing for this?

MCCAMMON: Well, they are taking steps to protect abortion rights and expand access to abortion - for example, letting physician assistants provide abortions, not just doctors. Here is Elizabeth Nash with Guttmacher again.

NASH: Because they're seeing what is at risk, and so they want to not only protect abortion rights for people living in their states, but for the people who might be coming to their state from states that further curtail or ban abortion.

MCCAMMON: And she's expecting a lot more of these battles on both sides in state legislatures ahead of the Supreme Court ruling.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Sarah McCammon, thank you.

MCCAMMON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon worked for Iowa Public Radio as Morning Edition Host from January 2010 until December 2013.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.