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Context and perspective on abortion and gun rights after this week's SCOTUS decisions

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

We're staying with our top story, the Supreme Court reversing Roe v. Wade and eliminating the constitutional right to abortion. And I want to get context and perspective from two journalists who have tracked the abortion debate in this country for years - Eliana Johnson, editor-in-chief of the Washington Free Beacon - that's a conservative online newspaper - and Amber Phillips, politics reporter at The Washington Post. Welcome to you both.

AMBER PHILLIPS: Hi there.

ELIANA JOHNSON: Thank you.

KELLY: And I want to also give fair warning. I am going to carve out a couple of minutes at the end to talk about developments from this week on gun control and gun rights, which I think would in any other week would be our top story, but here we are. We are going to start with Roe v. Wade. And, Eliana, you kick us off. I wonder what leapt out at you as you read this opinion in which Justice Alito argues that the reasoning in Roe was, quote, "egregiously wrong from the start."

JOHNSON: It's interesting. I actually don't think that that's a controversial view. I think that's a view pretty widely held among constitutional scholars. Whether or not they agree with the decision to overturn it, Roe was a pretty weak opinion. But from a purely political perspective, I think on the right, we're in a moment where we see institutions under attack. Certainly, we saw that with the January 6 hearings this week. This is hands-down the biggest and most important ruling and victory for the conservative movement in the seven years that it's existed. And it's the product of major institutional forces.

The right has put an enormous amount of emphasis on the courts in the form of the Federalist Society, which was founded in 1982. But it got help from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and from an anti-institutionalist, President Donald Trump, who put three of the five justices in - who joined the majority opinion today. And so that confluence of forces join together to deliver - I don't think very many people would disagree - the biggest victory for the conservative movement in its existence.

KELLY: Well, and it's interesting. You're saying that you think that there's consensus that Roe was perhaps egregiously wrong or weakly argued from the start. But a majority of justices have upheld that reasoning in the five decades since. Amber, what struck you?

PHILLIPS: Yeah. I think what struck me is that Justice Samuel Alito, the author of this opinion, didn't back down from being really controversial and kind of in your face about what - why he thought Roe should be denounced. He compared it to - just like he did in the draft opinion - a case upholding racial segregation and saying both were egregiously wrong. And he used that to argue why he thought the court should overturn legal precedent, something that a generation, even more, of Americans have come to take for granted as a right.

He said, listen. If I'm going to read the Constitution really literally, and he even said, I don't care how this plays out politically, but I think this is the right way to read into whether abortion should be protected, which is that the Constitution doesn't specifically mention it, and then therefore, I think we should overturn it. And he essentially said it doesn't matter to me that the Supreme Court twice, in two really big cases, as you point out, upheld abortion rights. He said...

KELLY: Well, sorry to jump in. I just - let me turn us to where this goes politically. We've heard Nancy Pelosi, we've heard Joe Biden say, this fall, Roe is on the ballot. Senator Durbin, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, says he's going to hold hearings next month. Amber, what can Democrats do?

PHILLIPS: Well, this is an emotional moment for them. Some Democrats were singing on the House floor today. And President Biden and top House Democrats talked about how we need to rally voters, and we're going to support abortion rights. But there's not a lot they can do, other than to urge Americans who support abortion rights to vote in these November midterm elections. And it's not clear to me that's going to happen. Abortion rights supporters have rarely, if ever, been motivated to go to the polls on these issues. Of course, that could change now that this isn't a protection that many Americans can take for granted.

KELLY: Eliana, what do you think? Where does this go legislatively?

JOHNSON: I do think it's an issue that will be on the ballot. We're going to see 26 states enact pretty quickly laws that will restrict abortion. And if, in fact, pro-choice activists or abortion rights activists are correct that this is not democratically popular, we will see the legislators who enacted those laws removed from office. And we will see legislators put in their place who will write new laws. So I certainly think that we will see a lot of churn in the democratic process around this issue.

KELLY: Quick take from each of you. Justice Thomas, in his concurring opinion today, suggested that other landmark decisions, including same-sex marriage, including contraception, that should be in play. Do you believe these are now in play? Eliana.

JOHNSON: I'm not sure. I found it notable that he was the only justice among the five who joined the majority who said that, and that Justice Alito, the author of the majority opinion, did not say that. In fact, he specifically said this applies to abortion and nothing beyond abortion. But it's hard to know if, given the political blowback that the justices are seeing - we've seen protest. They - you know, these guys go home and there are protests. Guys and gals go home and there are protests outside their homes. Whether that was stated to blunt the political blowback and to calm the waters and whether, in fact, we'll see more or not, I'm not sure.

KELLY: All right. I promised I would save a couple minutes to talk guns. So we had two seismic developments on guns this week. The Supreme Court, in a different ruling, saying there is a constitutional right to carry a handgun in public for self-defense, and then the Senate and now today the House voting to pass a bipartisan gun safety bill. To what extent does this reframe our national conversation about guns? Amber.

PHILLIPS: Well, I think - let's start with what Congress did. This is the first significant gun control legislation in 30 years. And it's not much from a gun safety point of view. But when I talked to gun control experts after the Uvalde and Buffalo massacres, they were almost certain nothing bipartisan would come out of this. They said don't even try. They were really pessimistic, every single person I talked to. Well, Congress did do something. And that's huge.

But at the same time, I talked to legal experts who point out that even when there's a political will, both in Congress and then, say, liberal states, to really restrict, like in New York, who can carry a gun in public, you have a conservative legislature doing what they did this week, which is restricting that severely. And so now it's much easier to carry a gun in public in many liberal states.

KELLY: Eliana, last word.

JOHNSON: I do think that the bipartisan deal was overshadowed by the Supreme Court ruling that came out earlier in the week in which Justice Clarence Thomas handed down the majority opinion, indicating that there is a constitutional right to carry guns in public and that it is likely to be quickly overshadowed - already has been overshadowed by that ruling.

KELLY: That is Eliana Johnson of the Washington Free Beacon and Amber Phillips of The Washington Post helping us break down a bunch of seismic developments in this week in politics. Thanks to you both.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

PHILLIPS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.