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How Far Will Supreme Court Justices Go on Abortion?

The Supreme Court seems all but certain to rewrite the country’s abortion laws when it rules in coming months on a case from Mississippi. But the real-world effects of that ruling will differ enormously depending on how far the justices go.

In one scenario, only a small share of abortions now being conducted in the U.S. — less than 2 percent, perhaps — would become illegal. In another scenario, the ruling could lead to sweeping changes in abortion access and a large decline in abortions.

That’s one of the takeaways from a statistical portrait of abortion in the U.S., created by my colleagues Margot Sanger-Katz, Claire Cain Miller and Quoctrung Bui.

During oral arguments at the Supreme Court this month, all six Republican-appointed justices suggested that they would uphold the Mississippi law, which bans abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy. It is less clear whether the justices will go further, scrapping Roe v. Wade entirely and allowing states to outlaw all abortions.

Chief Justice John Roberts seemed to favor a narrower ruling that would make 15 weeks the new cutoff, down from about 23 weeks under current law. Roberts noted during oral arguments that most other countries substantially restricted abortion at 15 weeks of pregnancy or earlier, and he called that threshold “the thing that is at issue before us today.”

The Times’s portrait shows that only 4 percent of abortions happen after 15 weeks. The portrait also shows that nearly two-thirds of abortions happen in states that President Biden won last year, and few of those states would pass new laws restricting abortion even if the Supreme Court allowed them.

Together, those facts mean that a narrow ruling upholding the Mississippi law might cause less than 2 percent of current abortions to become illegal.

To be clear, a ruling like that would matter. It would repudiate decades of legal precedent. It would stop thousands of abortions that opponents find especially offensive, because they end of the lives of fetuses well into their development. It would also restrict access in ways that abortion rights advocates consider especially cruel, because thousands of mostly lower-income women would lose control of their own bodies and be forced to complete pregnancies.

Yet such a ruling would not affect the vast majority of abortions in America. Which may be why Roberts — who worries about the court’s political standing and prefers to tread cautiously on many issues — seems to find this option appealing.

The other plausible scenario is a complete repeal of Roe. In response, experts expect that more than 20 states, now accounting for about one-third of abortions, might enact near-total bans.

Some of the women in these states would travel to places where abortion remained legal, while others would receive illegal abortions. But many who previously would have ended a pregnancy could no longer do so. Abortion policies in these states would become among the most restrictive in the world.

It would represent the kind of sweeping change that only rarely happens in American life.

Which of the two scenarios is more likely? Nobody outside the Supreme Court can be sure, because discussions among the justices after oral arguments often shape rulings in unexpected ways. But many court analysts think a more sweeping ruling is probable.

The oral arguments shaped that analysis: All five Republican-appointed justices other than Roberts seemed interested in a complete repeal of Roe v. Wade. And on a nine-member court, five obviously makes a majority. Before the arguments, court watchers thought that either Amy Coney Barrett or Brett Kavanaugh might provide a fifth vote for the compromise outcome.

Adam Liptak, who covers the Supreme Court for The Times, has a habit of reminding his colleagues that court decisions are often unpredictable. That lesson seems particularly important in a case that the justices know will help define their legacies. But the chances of a fundamental change in abortion policy are not small.

  • Women who get abortions look similar in several major ways to the overall population of American women: Most are already mothers who have attended at least some college and have not had an abortion before. Yet there are also notable differences, including in marriage rates. See The Times’s portrait for more.

  • The abortion rate has declined sharply since 1980. Among the reasons: better access to birth control and less teenage sex. The restrictions in red states also likely play a role, but not as large of one.

  • Public opinion on abortion is more complicated than it sometimes seems, Nate Cohn of The Times writes: Many religious Democrats favor abortion restrictions, while many secular Trump voters support abortion rights.

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Critics broadly loved Steven Spielberg’s remake of “West Side Story.” Disney gave it a traditional theatrical rollout. But will people go see it?

The movie opened to an estimated $10.5 million in North American ticket sales. “A feeble result — even by pandemic standards,” Brooks Barnes writes in The Times. The disappointing figures add to Hollywood’s fears about the theatrical viability of films that are not fantasy spectacles driven by visual effects or ongoing franchises.

At a time when studios are distributing movies on streaming services, Spielberg is a holdout, even as audiences may have come to expect they can watch new releases at home or are content to wait.

It’s also possible that people no longer find the plot, about an interracial romance, as provocative. As a film consultant told The Times: “For moviegoers, context may have caught up with this film, however well made it is.”

Others were less pessimistic: Musicals often get off to a slow start at the box office, even more so when they are released in mid-December. — Claire Moses, a Morning writer

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