Oral arguments at the Supreme Court on Wednesday represent the best opportunity leaders on the right have had in decades to gut the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which codified a woman's constitutional right to an abortion before a fetus can survive outside the womb.
If they are successful, it could validate years of often painstakingly granular work that ultimately remade the Republican Party from an alliance of business-friendly leaders into a coalition of cultural conservatives and evangelicals who turned the issue of abortion into a national flashpoint. Even if the justices don't explicitly overturn Roe, they could open the door to a flurry of new restrictions that would please the right.
Buoyed by a court that is now dominated by a 6-3 conservative majority, some leading Republicans were already expressing confidence on Tuesday.
"We are asking the court in no uncertain terms to make history," former Vice President Mike Pence, who has been laying the groundwork for a presidential run in 2024, said during a speech in Washington. "We are asking the Supreme Court of the United States to overturn Roe v. Wade and restore the sanctity of life at the center of American law."
The justices will weigh whether to uphold a Mississippi law that bans abortion after 15 weeks, with limited exceptions — well before the current established point of "viability," at around 24 weeks. The court is also weighing challenges to a Texas law that bans abortions after six weeks — before many women even know they're pregnant.
The court could decide to uphold current precedent, could let the law stand, effectively doing away with the current viability standard, or could overturn Roe entirely.
"This is the first time that they have clearly had a majority of pro-life-leaning justices," said Columbia Law School's Carol Sanger, an expert in reproductive rights. "So they have the votes if they choose to use them."
The court's decision, which is expected by late June, could dramatically shift the contours of next year's midterm elections, providing a new animating force for Democrats, who largely support abortion rights and have struggled to rally around a unifying issue this year.
Scuttling Roe "will surely embolden efforts of conservatives in many states to craft laws they think might not have held up under Roe," William Martin, a professor of religion and public policy at Rice University who has studied the rise of the anti-abortion movement, said in an email. "Conservatives will regard this as achieving a long-sought goal, but it may come at a significant cost, since Republicans probably already have most of the voters for whom opposition to abortion is the ultimate litmus test."
Still, for conservative activists, the case is a culmination of decades of work electing Republican state legislatures, enacting new barriers to abortion access, and supporting anti-abortion judges, including the new conservative super majority on the Supreme Court.
"Tomorrow the Supreme Court will hear the biggest case for the pro-life movement in two generations," said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion group which sponsored Pence's speech and plans to spend $10 million on TV and digital ads in Washington, D.C., and battleground states to promote the case.
Additional reporting by The Associated Press.