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The coming legal battles of post-Roe America

How criminalizing abortion may change with out-of-state prosecution.

An upside-down American flag and signs including one reading “We will never stop fighting” amid a crowd of protesters in a city street.
Abortion rights protesters carry an upside-down US flag in Reno, Nevada, on June 24, after the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade.
Ty O’Neil/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

When the Supreme Court issued its 6-3 decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, declaring that there is no longer a constitutional right to end a pregnancy, it ushered in a series of new and fiercely contested legal questions about who can be punished for doing so, and where, under newly restrictive state laws.

Can a state punish a resident for getting an out-of-state abortion? Can it punish the provider in another state who facilitated it? Or as Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan wrote in their dissent: “Can a State prohibit advertising out-of-state abortions or helping women get to out-of-state providers? Can a State interfere with the mailing of drugs used for medication abortions?”

Many anti-abortion activists and conservative legal scholars have long insisted that overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision would lead to a simpler legal landscape — freeing the Supreme Court from the “abortion-umpiring business,” former Justice Antonin Scalia​​ wrote in 1992, and allowing the matters to be decided “state by state.”

But while conservatives fantasized about the supposedly tidier legal landscape of a post-Roe America, other legal scholars warned overturning Roe could make the legal complexities of the last five decades seem quaint.

In his concurring Dobbs opinion, Justice Brett Kavanaugh dismissed concerns that overturning Roe will raise new vexing legal questions. “As I see it, some of the other abortion-related legal questions raised by today’s decision are not especially difficult as a constitutional matter,” Kavanaugh wrote. His arguments: The right to travel between states, as people seeking abortion in states with bans will now need to do, is constitutionally protected. Legal precedent would also prevent states from holding anyone liable for abortions that occurred before Friday’s decision.

With the rise of the internet, telehealth appointments, mail-order pharmacies, and drugs like mifepristone and misoprostol that people can acquire in advance of being pregnant, the questions around what it means to both provide and obtain an abortion have evolved considerably since the pre-Roe days, as have questions about what it means to “cross state lines” to get one. The liabilities involved in all these scenarios are likely to be tested in the years to come.

Ultimately, the end goal for the anti-abortion movement is not a patchwork of abortion-friendly and abortion-restricting states. It’s a country where abortion is illegal and inaccessible and ideally where fetuses are viewed as people, entitled to the same protections as any other individual under the Fourteenth Amendment.

“Until that argument is accepted, the antiabortion movement will use state powers to stop as many abortions as possible, including outside state borders,” wrote three Pennsylvania law professors, Greer Donley of University of Pittsburgh, David Cohen of Drexel University, and Rachel Rebouché of Temple University, in a working paper posted online in February that laid out the legal dilemmas, and was cited directly in the Dobbs dissent. This doesn’t necessarily mean that those attempts will succeed, but it underscores just how uncertain the legal landscape now is.

Though someone is unlikely to be physically barred from crossing a state border to end a pregnancy, the potential for criminal penalties when they return is very real in a post-Roe landscape. Up until now, states have primarily targeted abortion providers and clinics, as people seeking abortions were exercising their constitutionally protected right to end a pregnancy. But if new laws are upheld that extend greater legal protection to fetuses, the pressure on pregnant people around violating those new fetal rights will also increase. As more people opt for self-managing their abortions at home outside the formal health care system, experts say laws aimed at criminalizing these sorts of abortions are more likely.

With poorly regulated data privacy laws, aggressive prosecutors could amass a lot of evidence if they suspect a person obtained an illegal abortion, or an abortion that would not be legal in their home state. Missouri lawmakers introduced a bill last year that would have claimed legal jurisdiction for any pregnancy that was conceived within Missouri borders or in which the parents were Missouri residents at conception. It never received a vote, but lawmakers took another swing this year, introducing a bill that would target anyone in or outside of Missouri’s borders who “aids or abets” a Missouri resident’s abortion. Liberal states, in turn, are now trying to pass new protections for providers and allies who help end pregnancies for out-of-state residents.

“There are a whole host of unanswered questions that will now dominate,” Rebouché said. “Particularly as states start to enact their own abortion bans and do so on various timelines, I think what to expect in the immediate future is confusion.”

There is little legal precedent for these questions

Only two cases since Roe have really addressed questions about out-of-state legal liability, and it’s not clear how they would apply in a post-Roe America.

In its 1975 Bigelow v. Virginia decision, the US Supreme Court affirmed that a Virginia newspaper could print an ad for an abortion clinic in New York, where the procedure was legal, even though in 1971, when the ad originally ran, it was illegal in Virginia. The Court upheld the advertising on First Amendment grounds, and also noted that Virginia could not prevent its residents from traveling to New York for an abortion or prosecute them for doing so.

“A State does not acquire power or supervision over the internal affairs of another State merely because the welfare and health of its own citizens may be affected when they travel to that State,” the justices then wrote.

Then in 2007, the Missouri Supreme Court issued a decision in another abortion-related case, this one pertaining to a state law that prohibited individuals from “aid[ing], or assist[ing]” a minor’s abortion without parental consent. Planned Parenthood challenged the statute on First Amendment grounds, since the organization provided information to minors about out-of-state options, and alleged the law violated the commerce clause of the Constitution, since it would “requir[e] non-Missouri health care providers and others” to comply with the parental consent law. The court, citing Bigelow, dismissed the commerce clause claim, and said it was beyond the state’s authority. “Missouri simply does not have the authority to make lawful out-of-state conduct actionable here, for its laws do not have extraterritorial effect,” the court wrote.

Still, Donley, Cohen, and Rebouché caution from reading too much into these examples. “Though these two precedents contain strong statements against the application of extraterritorial abortion law, there is no reason to count on them being the final say on the matter,” they write in their preprint paper on post-Roe possibilities. “The first is dated and concentrated on the First Amendment, and the second is applicable in Missouri only.” The scholars note the Supreme Court could easily revisit Bigelow’s anti-extraterritoriality principle, and that it will indeed be “ripe for reassessment” once interjurisdictional abortion prosecutions begin.

But until these questions wind their way back up to the Supreme Court, aggressive prosecutors can and likely will experiment with testing the limits of the law.

For example, the law professors note, Georgia passed a law in 2019 which declared “unborn children are a class of living, distinct person” who deserve “full legal protection.” This law effectively banned abortions after just six weeks, as soon as fetal cardiac activity could be detected. It was later struck down by a district judge as a violation of Roe, but has since been stayed at the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, pending a decision in Dobbs. The appellate court is now expected to lift that stay in the coming days or weeks, and Georgia’s Republican Attorney General Chris Carr already sent a letter on Friday urging the 11th Circuit to reverse the district court’s decision.

If the law goes into effect, an emboldened prosecutor could seek criminal penalties for a Georgian who crossed state lines to obtain a legal abortion, or even against anyone who helped them travel across state lines, under the rationale that their unborn child deserves full legal protection. States may struggle to enforce extraterritorial prosecutions, though, just as they’ve struggled to crack down on Aid Access, which dispenses medication abortion to US residents from overseas.

There is no legal consensus yet on these questions, and politics will likely play a role in shaping what plays out. While there are not many activists urging prosecutors to go after teenagers who import marijuana from other states, pressure to enforce state abortion bans to the fullest extent possible is a safer bet. Already, Texas Republicans are discussing new legislation that would allow district attorneys to criminally punish anyone who helps a person end a pregnancy outside Texas. And if an anti-abortion activist in a red state sees an opportunity to shut down or cause headaches for an abortion provider working in a blue state, it’s fair to expect they will try.

Some scholars, including University of Pennsylvania law professor Seth Kreimer and Yale law professor Lea Brilmayer, have argued that extraterritorial prosecution of abortion would likely be illegal under the Constitution. Others, like Chicago-Kent School Law professor Mark Rosen and University of Michigan law professor Donald Regan, have argued that states would likely be able to regulate out-of-state abortion activity of their residents.

Donley, Cohen, and Rebouché identify with a third category of scholars, including Harvard law professor Richard Fallon and Washington University in Saint Louis law professor Susan Appleton, who think it will be murky, variable, and highly contested for years to come.

Blue states are trying to shield providers from red-state prosecutions

With Roe in place, a provider in New York or California had little to fear from a prosecutor in Texas or Louisiana. Abortion was a constitutionally protected right for all citizens. But with Roe overturned, that legal calculus changes, and providers may find themselves vulnerable to states that have fully banned the procedure, or that want to punish anyone who helps their citizens get it.

To try to protect providers who offer abortion services to patients who might visit them from a state where it’s illegal, Democrat-controlled states have started to craft and pass so-called shield laws. These laws offer additional protections, like barring state agencies from helping another state’s criminal investigation, and ensuring that an abortion provider could not lose their professional license or face malpractice insurance penalties as a result of an out-of-state complaint.

While these shield laws are unlikely to face constitutional challenge, it’s unclear if they will really be effective, and Donley, Cohen, and Rebouché note they may also create new legal battles between red and blue states. “After all, if Illinois refuses to extradite an abortion provider to Georgia, will Georgia retaliate and refuse to extradite a gun dealer to Illinois?” they asked in their February paper.

Medication abortion also creates particularly complex legal challenges for states. Laws around telemedicine generally defer to the location of the patient, but could a provider in New Jersey, where abortion is legal, face penalty for mailing pills to a patient who lives in a state where abortion is illegal, if the patient traveled to New Jersey for the actual appointment? Or what if the pills were sent to an address in a Democrat-controlled state, and then forwarded through the mail to a state where it’s illegal, either by a mail forwarding service or by a friend?

“There will be efforts to crack down on PO boxes, but the person who just gives [a telehealth provider] their friend’s address and the friend then personally forwards the mail — that will be impossible to police,” Donley told Vox.

Heightened conflict between the federal government and Republican states has already started

In addition to new battles between red and blue states, legal scholars predict new and unprecedented tensions between states and the federal government in a post-Roe environment.

A preview of those fights came on Friday, when President Joe Biden gave a speech calling out “extremist governors and state legislators” who want to try to limit access to FDA-approved medication like mifepristone. Biden announced he was directing the federal Department of Health and Human Services “to ensure that these critical medications are available to the fullest extent possible and that politicians cannot interfere in the decisions that should be made between a woman and her doctor.” The same day, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced he would use the powers of the Justice Department to crack down on states trying to ban medication abortion.

A majority of states have imposed some sort of restriction on medication abortion, though many are looking to enact even more aggressive regulation going forward. It’s not clear yet whether states can outright ban drugs that have been approved by the FDA, since that agency has the sole authority to approve drugs in the US. “It’s an open question,” Patti Zettler, an associate professor of law at Ohio State University and former associate chief counsel for the FDA, told the Washington Post last month.

There’s some legal precedent for courts striking down state restrictions that conflict with FDA approval. In 2014 a federal judge struck down a Massachusetts effort to ban the opioid Zohydro, since the FDA had approved the painkiller.

Still, it might be harder for a court to strike down laws that in practice restrict access to the drugs, like Texas’s ban on obtaining pills after just seven weeks of pregnancy, but that do not technically ban its use.

For now, no one really knows, but the evidence suggests we’re entering a new legal era, not simply reverting to the pre-1973 status quo. As Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan write in their dissent, the Dobbs decision “puts the Court at the center of the coming ‘interjurisdictional abortion wars.’”