The Fate of Roe v. Wade May Rest on This Woman’s Shoulders

On the night Julie Rikelman was due to appear before the Supreme Court, she barely slept. But it wasn’t nerves that kept her up. The constant fire alarm in the Washington, D.C. Hotel where she was lodging was what kept her awake. For hours, it went off repeatedly. She laughs and remembers.

Despite the mayhem, Rikelman, the litigation director at the Center for Reproductive Rights who colleagues describe as “unflappable,” stood before the high court the next day to argue the first abortion-related case since Trump-appointed conservative Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh arrived on the bench. She left the oral arguments feeling confident and several months later, she learned she’d tallied up another win. The court sided with the Louisiana abortion clinic that Rikelman represented, holding that the state’s law put an undue burden on those seeking abortions—as was the case when they struck down a nearly identical Texas law in 2016. The relief was felt by abortion rights advocates.
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But all the drama of that March 2020 argument—which unfolded just before COVID-19 shut the country down—pales in comparison to the pressure Rikelman and the Center for Reproductive Rights are facing now. Rikelman will appear again before the Supreme Court Dec. 1. He will argue against another Mississippi law which threatens access to abortion.

Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health OrganizationThe 2018 Mississippi law would ban almost all abortions within 15 weeks. This law, unlike the Louisiana case Rikelman won in 2020 before SCOTUS, does not place additional requirements on those who provide abortions. It seeks to ban the entire procedure. Mississippi’s law presents a serious, direct challenge. the Supreme Court’s 1973 landmark decision in Roe V. Wade The court’s decisionPeople have the constitutional right of abortion, up to the time when the baby can live outside the womb or approximately 24 weeks before the due date.

The Supreme Court accepted to listen Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health OrganizationRikelman, her coworkers and herself were shocked that Rikelman had even heard of it. The Court then announced that it would hear the case and would also consider whether any laws banning abortion before viability were unconstitutional. With its 6-3 conservative court majority that includes Amy Coney Barrett instead of Ruth Bader Ginsburg as its judge, the Supreme Court is willing to review the precedent. Roe v. Wade You are the best.

“It’s been clear for 50 years that a ban like Mississippi’s is unconstitutional,” Rikelman says. “If the Supreme Court upholds this ban, it will have effectively overturned Roe v. Wade.”

This case is at an important political moment. The past year has seen a significant increase in political activism. The record breaking 106 laws that restrict abortion were passed by the state legislatures in September., Texas implemented the nation’s single strictest abortion law since 1973, banning nearly all abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. This Texas law could also be brought before the Supreme Court. The stakes of this moment, Rikelman says, are “monumental.

Saul Loeb—AFP/Getty ImagesMarch 4th, abortion rights activists demonstrated outside the U.S. Supreme Court Washington D.C.

An understanding of human rights

Rikelman is well-prepared for the fight since a long time. She was born in Kyiv and immigrated to America in 1979 with her parents after suffering discrimination in Soviet Union due to their Jewish heritage. Her mother was denied admission to medical school due to her faith. When her parents moved here, she and her father could barely speak English. Rikelman herself learned English as a second language, and says seeing her family’s struggle shaped her interest in civil rights from an early age. “I definitely grew up thinking about how important it was for people to be able to make personal decisions about their lives for themselves, she says, “and not have the government make those decisions for them.

Rikelman felt sometimes like an outsider in school. But in college, she found her niche. One of her classes on sex discrimination led to Supreme Court cases regarding reproductive rights. She’d found her calling. That college textbook is still in her office. She still retains the 19-year old college textbook she used to highlight. Rikelman fell in love with constitution law and clerked for the Third Circuit Court of Appeals Judge. She was also the first woman judge to sit on Alaska’s Supreme Court. Rikelman then received a Fellowship at Center for Reproductive Rights. This powerful non-profit was established in 1992. The abortion clinic is at the core of Casey vs. Planned ParenthoodThe lesser-known Supreme Court case in which the rights to abortion were upheld that same year, is called “In re: In re:”.After a stint. After a brief stint As vice-president of litigation Rikelman was back at the Center by NBC Universal in 2011. And has been ever since

In years after the Center for Reproductive Rights was founded, it grew quickly into a legal powerhouse, employing roughly 800 lawyers and wielding a $40 million budget to fight many of the country’s high-profile abortion legal battles, often alongside Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union. Its role is now even greater. Rikelman has been with the organization for a decade.As a Senior Attorney, Center has seen a shift in the type of cases that are aimed at abortion access. “We were always fighting restrictions that are burdensome and make it harder to access reproductive health care,” says Nancy Northup, the president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights. “But not flat out bans. “The boldness of our restrictions and the fact that the Supreme Court is litigating the issue about whether Roe v. Wade should be overturned, was nowhere on the horizon 19 years ago.”

Rikelman recognizes that the obstacles to accessing abortion have become more severe.The accumulation of experience is a testament to our abilities.. “Julie has a first rate legal mind. But she doesn’t have a trace of arrogance about it,” Northup says. “It makes her an incredibly effective advocate because she is not letting any kind of ego get in the way of the way that she argues in the courtroom.”

Rally at the Supreme Court to Protect Abortion Rights
Alyssa Schukar—Center for Reproductive Rights/APRikelman addresses supporters of abortion rights after oral arguments at the U.S. Supreme Court hearing on March 4, 2020

‘Concerning for the rule of law’

Since decades abortion opponents have worked with conservative state lawmakers to limit abortion in various ways. For example, they have put into place a range of regulations that supposedly aim to protect patient safety, but actually make it hard for doctors and clinics to continue to be open. Those TRAP laws are what abortion rights advocates refer to as Target Regulation of Abortion Providers laws. However, attempts to ban abortion access have become more subtle over time. Instead of adding facility requirements or mandating hospital admitting privileges—the subjects of the past two abortion-related Supreme Court cases—lawmakers recently have sought to impose gestational bans and to revisit the idea of when life begins. The laws address the fundamental question of when and if abortions should become legal.

Change the viability benchmark, the central holding RoeIt would uphold the 1973 decision and give the states the ability to review dozens more abortion laws that were blocked throughout the years. “One of the basic principles of the rule of law is stare decisis,” says Rikelman. “You don’t change precedent unless there’s a really good reason, unless there’s been some really fundamental shift, a real change in facts, a major change in the law—and none of that has happened. For the court to reverse itself here for this right would just be deeply concerning for the rule of law.”

That’s exactly what this Mississippi case is asking the Supreme Court to do. You can find out more at This summer, a short summaryLynn Fitch (Mississippi Attorney General) asked the Court for an order to reverse Roe, arguing that changes in science and society have rendered the precedent “decades out of date,” and that the controversy over RoeThe Court has been damaged. “The national fever on abortion can break only when this Court returns abortion policy to the States,” the brief said.

Rikelman, along with other pro-abortion rights activists disagree with this logic. If Roe were overturned, abortion would become illegal—either immediately or very quickly—in roughly half the states in the nation. The Center has clients in 32 states and currently is litigating 32 cases. Northup states that without the viability line state legislatures will likely adopt more abortion laws and work would increase exponentially. This would create more inequal access between liberal and conservative states. It is noted that Casey decision opens with the line “Liberty finds no refuge in a jurisprudence of doubt.” In other words, “the more imprecise the constitutional standard,” she says, “the more that opens the door for chaos and thus no refuge, no safety, no guarantee of liberty.”

Rally at the Supreme Court to Protect Abortion Rights
Alyssa Schukar—Center for Reproductive Rights/APKathaleen Pittman, of Hope Medical Group for Women, Rikelman, senior director of the Center for Reproductive Rights, Nancy Northup, center president, and T.J. Tu, the center’s senior council for U.S. litigation, stand outside the U.S. Supreme Court after oral arguments in June Medical Services v. Russo on March 4.

Always another road to go down’

Texas’s recent, ultra-strict abortion law represents a cautionary tale for the abortion rights movement. This law bans abortions in most cases, and also gives private citizens the power to enforce it. Some state clinics are no longer offering abortion services. Other abortion providers have been forced into difficult legal situations by the law. Texans have flooded the states surrounding Texas in search for abortions since the passing of the law. “Texas has given us a preview of what we could see on a much bigger scale in many states around the country if Roe is overturned,” Rikelman says.

There are huge stakes in her ability to present arguments before the Supreme Court on December 12. Women still make up only a fraction of advocates before the Supreme Court—often less than 20%—and now Rikelman will be appearing again in a case that could have historic implications for the future of how women are able to live in the U.S. She and her co-lead counsel Hillary Schneller often work 13- or 14-hour days preparing for oral arguments. The team will have spent many hours working on this case by Dec. 1.


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