RGJ explains: Why the Supreme Court's upcoming abortion fight is unlikely to affect Nevada

Nevada is one of only nine states in the U.S. that have abortion protections firmly embedded in the state constitution

James DeHaven
Reno Gazette Journal

As the U.S. Supreme Court settles in for a momentous Wednesday hearing that could fundamentally reshape abortion rights in America, some will wonder what overturning Roe v. Wade could mean for Nevada.

In short: Not much. 

Nevada is one of only nine states that have abortion protections firmly embedded in the state constitution, making it largely immune from the high court’s upcoming debate over a Mississippi law that bans the termination of pregnancies after 15 weeks.

Lower courts have struck down that prohibition as plainly unconstitutional under a half century of legal precedent set by Roe, a 1973 landmark Supreme Court ruling that guaranteed the constitutional right to abortion up to 24 weeks into a pregnancy. 

Wednesday’s hearing will see Mississippi ask a conservative supermajority of justices to abandon that standard in favor of one that allows states to set their own policies. The case, filed as Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, is widely seen as abortion opponents' best shot at reversing Roe in at least a generation.

Nevada's abortion-rights advocates would certainly be unhappy with such an outcome, but not nearly as displeased as their counterparts in nearly three dozen states that don't expressly protect abortion in statute. 

Caroline Mello-Roberson, southwest regional director of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said Nevada may end up providing refuge for women fleeing those places.

"As one of the few places in the nation with a voter-affirmed right to abortion, Nevada may play a critical regional role in filling in gaps for people in those states, should Roe be overturned — which could have logistical and financial implications on those seeking abortion care and providers," Mello-Roberson wrote in an email to the Reno Gazette Journal. 

More:Cortez Masto: Nevada could provide a refuge for abortion seekers in the age of Trump

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She went on to praise the 2019 passage of a state law that removed criminal penalties for abortion, a move Mello-Roberson called "one of the country’s most significant pieces of proactive legislation on reproductive freedom."

U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., echoed many of those sentiments as recently as 2018, when she said that Nevada could offer sanctuary for women seeking abortions in Texas, Mississippi and other parts of the country that limit access to the procedure. 

That’s because Nevadans in 1990 passed a statewide ballot initiative, known as Question 7, which insulated the state from the impact of reversing Roe.

The popular measure was adopted with support from nearly two-thirds of voters, and effectively cemented the right to get an abortion during the first six months of pregnancy in Nevada. 

Anti-abortion advocates would have to win another statewide referendum in order to reverse that decision — a task that’s proven difficult in a state where polls show consistent voter support for abortion rights.

In fact, abortion opponents have lost just such a fight before, most recently in 2012, when they failed to gather the signatures needed to put a Question 7-killing measure to voters.

Any future efforts to undo the initiative would require a pair of majority votes in a state Legislature that is currently led by Democrats, or else the collection of at least 112,000 autographs from Nevada voters.

Abortion rights activists gather during a rally to support the passage of S.B. 179, or the Trust Nevada Women (TNWA) Act, in Carson City on May 21, 2019.

Of course, neither of the state’s major political parties, and few of its political candidates, like to mention those hurdles when fundraising or firing up the base on the campaign trail. 

Ex-U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, once seen as a pro-abortion-rights Republican, in September said he “liked what Texas did” with its recently passed six-week abortion ban. He is yet to articulate a plan for getting similar legislation passed through a Democrat-led statehouse in a Democrat-leaning state. 

Former Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt, an outspoken abortion opponent now seeking a U.S. Senate seat, come under fire in 2018 for saying he would look into proposing changes to Question 7. 

Laxalt later clarified those remarks in a campaign statement that said he had “zero interest in ‘undoing’ the 1990 law in question.” He’s had little to say about Nevada's abortion policy since. 

The Supreme Court is still weighing a decision in a separate legal fight over Texas' six-week abortion ban, which took effect in September.

Justices are not expected to issue a decision in the Mississippi case until June.

James DeHaven is the politics reporter for the Reno Gazette Journal. He covers campaigns, the Nevada Legislature and everything in between. Support his work by subscribing to RGJ.com right here