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Indy Explains: What happens to Nevada’s abortion laws if Roe is overturned?

Tabitha Mueller
Tabitha Mueller
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Following the release of a draft U.S. Supreme Court decision likely overturning federal abortion protections, Nevada officials emphasized that the state’s abortion laws will remain unchanged regardless of what happens at the national level.

Within hours of the unprecedented leak, Gov. Steve Sisolak and Attorney General Aaron Ford, among others, turned to social media in a bid to assuage fears. They reiterated that Nevada’s abortion laws stand on solid ground and will not be affected by changes on the federal level.

“Voters in Nevada are guaranteed a right to a legal abortion until 24 weeks of pregnancy,” Ford said in a press call Tuesday afternoon. “Let me be crystal clear to any Nevadan who is listening to this message: If you need reproductive health services, make that appointment with your doctor. We will protect your right to make decisions with your doctor about what is best for your health, your family and your future.”

Several Republicans applauded the contents of the leaked draft, with Senate hopeful Adam Laxalt saying that if the document reflected the Supreme Court’s final decision, “it would constitute a historic victory for the sanctity of life,” but condemning the leak. He did note, however, that “no matter the Court’s ultimate decision on Roe, it is currently settled law in [Nevada].”

The overturn of Roe v. Wade is expected to result in many conservative states outlawing nearly all abortions, with at least 13 states that have passed so-called “trigger laws” that would automatically ban abortion access if Roe v. Wade is overturned. The removal of abortion protection by the Supreme Court is also expected to result in at least a 14 percent drop in the number of legal abortions in the United States, according to studies conducted by a group of researchers from Middlebury College, the University of California, San Francisco and the Guttmacher Institute

Abortion rights in the Silver State have been protected by state law for more than 30 years and are unlikely to shift based on the Supreme Court decision, though the outcome of the state’s congressional and Senate elections will likely have implications for abortion protections at the federal level. The Nevada Independent explains:

What is Roe v. Wade?

In 1973, the Supreme Court ruled in a 7-2 decision in the case of Roe v. Wade that a Texas law banning abortions except to save a mother’s life was unconstitutional because it violated “zones of privacy” guaranteed by the First, Fourth, Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments.

The ruling drew on previous cases to establish that the government cannot interfere with personal decisions surrounding contraception, marriage and child-raising and determined that the choice to have an abortion is up to a mother and doctor during the first trimester of pregnancy.

Once a pregnancy reached the second trimester, the state could regulate abortion procedures but not outlaw abortions. Subsequent to viability (as early as 24 weeks), the court ruled that states could regulate or ban abortions unless the mother found herself in a life-threatening situation. 

What is behind the potential overturn of Roe v. Wade?

The Supreme Court’s 6-3 conservative majority is expected to essentially uphold a 2018 Mississippi law that bans most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. The state has also asked the court to overturn Roea change that would remove all federal abortion protections and allow states to individually enact abortion bans as early in pregnancy as they choose.

Where did Nevada’s abortion protections come from? 

Almost immediately after Roe was issued, Republican then-Attorney General Robert List in 1973 declared the state’s anti-abortion law unconstitutional. Abortions became available within a month of the announcement. 

Amid a simmering debate over abortion access and efforts to cut down Roe in the federal judiciary, a group of citizens gathered in 1989 and orchestrated an intense political effort to safeguard existing reproductive rights in Nevada through the state’s referendum process. In 1990, nearly two-thirds of Nevada voters approved the ballot measure codifying state law allowing for abortions within 24 weeks of pregnancy — timing that mirrors Roe’s protections for abortions before a fetus is viable outside the womb. 

Abortion after 24 weeks is allowed if a pregnancy could be fatal for the mother. 

Additional protections for abortion access in Nevada came in 2019 when Sisolak signed a bill removing a requirement that doctors share the emotional implications of undergoing an abortion with patients and repealing felony criminal penalties on abortion that have been in place in the Silver State since the early 20th century.

Nevada is one of 16 states that have codified abortion access in law, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

Who or what could overturn the protections?

Passage of the 1990 referendum means that only a direct majority vote from the people could overturn that protection. Nevada’s lawmakers and governor have no power to restrict abortion access earlier than 24 weeks into pregnancy. 

The most recent effort to overturn abortion protections came in 2012, when anti-abortion activists circulated but failed to qualify a ballot initiative aimed at reversing abortion protections.

Parental notification

There are ways of enacting more targeted restrictions on abortion, such as requiring parental notification before a minor receives an abortion.

In 1981, Republican then-Gov. List signed a bill requiring doctors to inform parents of girls under the age of 18 that their daughter intended to seek an abortion, and for a wife seeking an abortion to notify her husband at least 24 hours before the procedure. The law was challenged by abortion advocates and later ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge.

Four years later, Democrat then-Gov. Richard Bryan signed a similar law forbidding abortions for people under 18 without the notification of their parents or legal guardians. The law contained a provision allowing a minor to make a case to a district court and be granted approval for an abortion without notifying a guardian. 

Planned Parenthood contested the law, and it was eventually ruled unconstitutional by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. 

Then-Democrat Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa did not challenge the ruling, and the law remains on the books, though it is considered unenforceable.

This year, anti-abortion advocates are pushing for a ballot initiative to implement that measure in a way that would comply and address the issues raised in court several decades earlier, though previous attempts have failed.

Initiative backers must gather signatures by the end of June that equal at least 10 percent of the total number of voters who cast ballots during the last general election.

What effect would overturning Roe have on Nevada?

The removal of Roe v. Wade abortion protections could lead to the state becoming a refuge for abortion seekers living in red states.

Since Texas implemented a law last year prohibiting abortions once a fetal heartbeat can be detected, sometimes as early as six weeks into pregnancy, Planned Parenthood health centers have seen a significant increase in patients. Data released by the Planned Parenthood Federation of America showed an 800 percent increase in abortions in surrounding states provided to patients from Texas after the law was passed.

Anti-abortion advocates also view an overturning of Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court as having the potential to set off a domino effect that could spur voters to overturn the Nevada laws surrounding abortion protections. But achieving enough support for the ballot measure appears impractical amid continued widespread support for abortion access.

How much support is there for abortion protections in Nevada?

A July poll of nearly 800 registered Nevada voters conducted by OH Predictive Insights for The Nevada Independent found that 65 percent of respondents described themselves as “pro-choice” on the topic of abortion, including more than half of registered Republicans (52 percent). Those views are more pro-abortion than at the national level — a 2021 Gallup poll found Americans split almost evenly between being “pro-choice” (49 percent) and “pro-life” (47 percent).

Recent polling shows a similar share of Nevada voters continue to describe themselves as “pro-choice.”

UNR Assistant Science Professor Christina Ladam told The Nevada Independent that the Nevada electorate’s lean toward abortion rights could in part be influenced by the state having one of the highest rates of non-religious people and a more libertarian streak of wanting less government involvement. 

How many abortion clinics are in Nevada?

As of 2017, there were 11 facilities providing abortions in Nevada, including seven clinics. About 9 percent of women living in Nevada reside within a county without any abortion clinics.

Wild West Access Fund Nevada, an abortion rights group, shows seven abortion clinics in Las Vegas and two abortion clinics in Reno that provide surgical and medical abortion options.

How many abortions are performed in Nevada?

A report by the anti-abortion Charlotte Lozier Institute based on state data found that 8,414 abortions were reported in Nevada in 2019, a decrease of 5 percent from 2018.

In 2017, the pro-choice research organization Guttmacher Institute reported that Nevada’s abortion rate had declined by 15 percent between 2014 and 2017. The organization reported 9,690 abortions were performed that year.

Assistant Editor Riley Snyder contributed to this story.

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