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Trigger laws and abortion restrictions, explained

Some states are already enacting and embracing stricter abortion laws in the wake of the Dobbs decision.

Protests continue nationwide in the wake of Roe v. Wade being overturned
Nationwide protests slamming the Supreme Court opinion that overturned Roe v. Wade have been going on since a draft opinion leaked in May.
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

With the Supreme Court’s opinion on Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization issued this week, people who are able to become pregnant are now left wondering how the ruling may affect abortion-related legislation in their home state. In some states, abortion was made almost entirely illegal immediately following the Court’s decision on Friday thanks to special statutes known as “trigger laws.”

In anticipation of Roe v. Wade’s reversal, more than a dozen Republican-controlled states created trigger laws. These laws put in place anti-abortion policies that may have been unconstitutional under Roe and are “triggered” by any federal law or Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe.

Beyond health or medical risks, there are few exceptions where these anti-abortion laws do not apply, like in cases where the pregnancy would put the individual’s life in jeopardy, or in cases of rape or incest. But many states with those exceptions require the individual to report their case to law enforcement in order to meet the requirements for the exemption.

Some states have trigger laws that will not go into effect unless certain conditions are met, like requiring a state’s chief prosecutor to sign off on a certification of the court’s decision. Other trigger laws simply don’t take effect immediately but will soon be enforced — in some states in as little as five days’ time.

Several other states without trigger statutes are expected to reinstate old anti-abortion laws as well, though those are likely to face legal challenges from abortion rights advocates.

Which states have trigger laws on near-total abortion bans?

Three states — Kentucky, Louisiana, and South Dakota — had statutes already on the books that allowed for complete or near-complete bans on abortion to take effect immediately following the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade. None of these states make an exception for abortion in cases of rape or incest. Six other states with trigger laws have also had their complete or near-complete bans on abortion swiftly implemented. There are a total of 13 states with trigger laws, though their scopes vary and so do their implementation.

In Alabama, a judge lifted an injunction on Friday that allowed the state’s 2019 law banning abortion to become legal. In Arkansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma, the trigger laws became active after the Supreme Court’s decision was certified by the respective states’ attorneys general. Many Republican officials hailed the Supreme Court’s decision as a celebratory milestone for so-called pro-life conservatives. Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who was the first AG to sign such a certification in the wake of the Dobbs ruling, rejoiced in the opportunity.

“My office has been fighting to uphold the sanctity of life since I became attorney general, culminating in today’s momentous court ruling and attorney general opinion,” Schmitt said in a statement. “I will continue the fight to protect all life, born and unborn.”

Complete or near-complete abortion bans in other trigger law states are expected to take effect within a certain period (typically within 30 days) after actions from state officials. Mississippi, another trigger law state where the court’s decision needs to be certified by the attorney general, has a shorter grace period, with its law taking effect just 10 days after certification. In North Dakota, anti-abortion laws will take effect immediately after the state’s attorney general signs off on it. North Dakota AG Drew Wrigley has 30 days to do so but said his office is reviewing the Dobbs decision. In Tennessee, anti-abortion laws will take effect 30 days after the court’s decision, with the lone exception being the risk of death or permanent disability.

Idaho’s trigger law will kick in 30 days after the court’s official opinion is published — which is expected in about a month — enacting a near-complete ban on abortion in the state with the exceptions of cases of medical emergencies, rape, and incest. Texas’s trigger law will take effect 30 days after the court issues a judgment, not just an opinion. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton clarified that the official judgment should be issued after an appropriate period in which any appeals can be filed. The state already had a law banning abortions after six weeks except to save the life of the pregnant person, which took effect in September 2021.

Wyoming and Utah are also trigger law states with anti-abortion legislation ready to be reactivated. Wyoming’s trigger law will take effect five days after the court decision is certified by the state’s governor, Mark Gordon, who described the Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling as “a decisive win for those who have fought for the rights of the unborn for the past 50 years.” In Utah, the trigger law took effect after court decision was certified by the state’s legislative general counsel, which occurred the same day as the Dobbs ruling. Utah’s law will ban nearly all abortions except in cases of rape and incest, but only if reported to law enforcement. Utah’s law also allows exceptions in cases in which a baby would have severe birth defects and if a pregnancy puts the individual’s life at risk.

Abortion laws remain uncertain in some states, including those where abortion is still legal

Outside of the 13 states that hold trigger laws, there are at least six states likely to ban abortion in the coming weeks and months: Iowa, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Georgia, and South Carolina.

A near-total abortion ban is expected to take effect in West Virginia through its existing anti-abortion law, which dates back to the 1800s. It will likely be revived, but it’s still unclear how and through what specific legal mechanisms that will happen. Recently, voters in West Virginia approved a state constitutional amendment specifying that “nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of abortion.”

We can expect to see further anti-abortion laws flourish in the next few years; Republican lawmakers across the country have expressed their desire to pursue the strictest anti-abortion policies possible in their respective states. Among them is Arkansas state Sen. Jason Rapert, who sponsored the state’s trigger law in 2019.

“It’s a good day for Arkansas but our work is not done,” Rapert said on Friday. “The NACL [National Association of Christian Lawmakers] has committed that we are going to seek the abolishment of abortion in every state in this country because just like Abe Lincoln said, ‘we cannot continue as a house divided.’”

Correction, 6:45 pm: A previous version of this article misstated the details of several states’ laws post-Roe, including Alabama, New Hampshire, and Utah. The article has also been updated to include more details on the laws in North Dakota, Texas, and Tennessee.