For the first time in half a century, Americans woke up on Saturday in a country where they no longer had a constitutional right to an abortion.
There was confusion and anger across the US a day after the Supreme Court struck down the 1973 ruling in Roe v Wade, which affirmed the right to abortion care, and determined that individual states, not the US constitution, should make decisions about abortion access.
The landmark decision marks the first time that the nation’s high court has revoked a constitutional right.
Protesters took to the streets on Friday night and again on Saturday in cities across the US, from Washington DC to Boston, Detroit, Phoenix, Los Angeles and across the south, from Charleston, South Carolina to Austin, Texas.
“I never thought it would be changed,” said Carol Folk, who traveled from her assisted living home in Virginia to protest outside the Supreme Court on Saturday afternoon. The former family planning worker – whose first day on the job came as the Supreme Court handed down the Roe decision in 1973 – remembered the era of unsafe abortions and dangerous and life-threatening outcomes for women who could not access care.
Five decades later, she was outside the Supreme Court with her daughter. “I had hoped it wouldn’t be but today I hope we can change it again,” she told The Independent.
In New York City on Friday night, 27-year-old Jess Yu carried signs reading “my body my choice” and “I don’t care what the bible says.”
“Bodily autonomy is something I care deeply about and the [Supreme Court] decision broke my heart,” she told The Independent.
In Phoenix, Arizona, police officers fired tear gas at crowds as they converged on the state capitol. The driver behind the wheel of a truck appeared to hit at least two protesters in downtown Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
As Republican officials prepare to implement criminal anti-abortion laws, imposing prison terms and heavy fines against providers and people who “aid and abet” an abortion, pressure is building on the White House and Congress to strengthen protections for people seeking an abortion.
Democratic Senators Elizabeth Warren and Tina Smith urged members of Congress and President Joe Biden to declare a public health emergency to help secure access to abortion for women across the country.
Declaring a public health emergency will unlock “critical resources and authority that states and the federal government can use to meet the surge in demand for reproductive health services,” the senators wrote in a The New York Times published Saturday. “The danger is real, and Democrats must meet it with the urgency it deserves.”
Mr Biden has also faced calls to increase the number of justices on the Supreme Court as a way to reset the balance between liberal and conservative judges.
But White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Saturday that the president does not support court expansion, and instead wants Congress “to act to restore Roe and make it the law of the land,” which the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives has repeatedly passed while the legislation has languished in a deadlocked US Senate.
“If that can’t happen the American public has to use their voice … at the ballot box,” she said.
The president on Friday directed the US Department of Health and Human Services to “to protect women’s access to critical medications for reproductive health care” including “essential preventive health care like contraception and medication abortion.”
US Attorney General Merrick Garland also has warned states that they cannot ban the medication abortion drug mifepristone – the most common form of abortion – as Republican legislators introduce dozens of proposals restricting the availability of approved prescription drugs to terminate a pregnancy.
But the impact of the new ruling was felt immediately across the country. There were tears and confusion in clinics in several states that outlawed abortion with so-called “trigger” laws — designed to take effect without Roe’s overarching protections the moment Roe was overturned.
Abortion clinics indefinitely suspended appointments even as patients sat in waiting rooms.
Minutes after opening at 9am on Friday, Houston Women’s Reproductive Service turned away patients. The staff at Alamo Women’s Reproductive Services Clinic in San Antonio addressed patients in the waiting room that abortion services would no longer be offered. Patients cried out for help.
In Louisiana, the staff at Hope Medical Center – one of three remaining clinics in the state, all of which have suspended abortions – began calling patients to tell them their upcoming appointments would be canceled, after waiting weeks to secure them.
Planned Parenthood’s seven clinics in Arizona suspended abortions, citing “chaos and confusion” from a web of anti-abortion laws in the state and pressure from Republican officials declaring that a 120-year-old ban on abortions, when the state was still a territory, was in effect, with providers facing up to five years in prison.
Planned Parenthood of the St Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, which operates the only remaining abortion clinic in the state, stopped offering abortions. Patients are referred to services in Illinois, roughly 300 miles away.
Missouri enacted a “trigger” law making abortion illegal within minutes of the Supreme Court decision.
Planned Parenthood Great Plains – which services several states – suspended abortion services at its health centre in Arkansas after the state’s “trigger” law went into effect.
“State by state, we have seen access to abortion virtually eliminated,” said Emily Wales, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Great Plains. “Today this creeping march to crush fundamental freedoms has reached its awful conclusion: your body is not your own. Your rights are entirely dependent on where you reside.”
Sixteen states and Washington DC have state-level laws protecting abortion access or enshrining the right to an abortion. Providers and advocates fear an influx of patients from other states where abortion is now criminalised – some traveling as far as Louisiana and Mississippi, states where patients will have to travel farther than others to access legal care – could strain already-fragile health systems and further erode equal protections, as where one lives will determine whether their right to an abortion faces criminal prosecution or support from the state.
Additional reporting by Jenna Amatulli in New York and Rachel Sharp in Washington DC