The conservative majority in the US Supreme Court said that they would uphold a law in the state of Mississippi barring abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy, a decision directly contradicting the high court's landmark ruling in favour of abortion rights that has existed for nearly a half-century.
After two hours of oral arguments on Wednesday, all of the Supreme Court's six conservative justices indicated they would uphold the Mississippi law, but they seemed divided over whether the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, which established the constitutional right to abortion and prohibited states from banning abortion before fetal viability - or 23 to 24 weeks - should be overruled.
Chief Justice John Roberts expressed the willingness to adopt an intermediate approach that doesn't necessarily toss Roe. "That may be what they're asking for," Roberts said, referring to Mississippi's call to overturn Roe, "but the thing at issue before us today is 15 weeks."
Samuel Alito, another conservative justice, appeared less interested in a less sweeping ruling, saying "the only real options we have" are to reaffirm Roe or to overrule it, Xinhua news agency reported.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh, a conservative appointed by former President Donald Trump, questioned why the Supreme Court should weigh in on the highly controversial matter.
"Why should this court be the arbiter rather than Congress, the state legislatures, state supreme courts, the people, being able to resolve this?" Kavanaugh said. "And there'll be different answers in Mississippi than New York, different answers in Alabama than California."
For those on the other side of the ideological spectrum, upholding Mississippi's 15-week abortion ban would tarnish the reputation of the Supreme Court.
"Will this institution survive the stench that this creates in the public perception that the Constitution and its reading are just political acts?" liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked Mississippi's solicitor general, whose main argument was that Roe and the high court's 1992 ruling in Planned Parenthood v. Casey that reaffirmed Roe were wrongly decided and should be overturned. "I don't see how it is possible," Sotomayor said.
Given the conservatives' 6-3 majority in the Supreme Court, the fact that the court agreed to consider a state law banning abortion long before fetal viability seemed to be an indication that it intended to scale back precedents favouring women's abortion rights if not outright scrap them.
The Supreme Court's final decision in the Mississippi case is not expected until late June or early July.
After the conclusion of the oral arguments, President Joe Biden declined to say if he was concerned about the fate of Roe, for which he reiterated his support.
"First of all, I haven't - I didn't see any of the debate today, the presentation today," Biden told reporters at the White House. "And I support Roe v. Wade, I think it's a rational position to take, and I continue to support it.