How Clarence Thomas Finally Triumphed in 30-Year Battle Against Roe v. Wade

In what many will consider the U.S. Supreme Court's biggest decision in a generation, the court has overturned the landmark 1973 ruling Roe v. Wade, which guaranteed constitutional protection of abortion rights.

The court's conservative majority ruled in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization that their predecessors erred 49 years ago by finding a woman's right to abortion was protected by the Fourteenth Amendment.

The decision also represents a significant victory for Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, who has been clear that he believes Roe should be overturned.

Dobbs v. Jackson asked the justices to uphold a Mississippi law that bans almost all abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy and presented a direct challenge to the court's precedent.

While abortion rights advocates will view the decision as a blow to women's rights, those opposed to abortion have reason to celebrate and to thank Thomas for his contribution to a significant legal victory.

Thomas is now the longest-serving member of the court and has served for almost 31 years. He is also the only remaining member of the court who was present during hearings in another landmark case, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which was decided in 1992.

In that case, the court voted 5 to 4 to reaffirm the "essential holding" in Roe, with three justices who had been appointed by Republican presidents writing the plurality opinion.

Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony Kennedy and David Souter jointly authored the opinion and Justices Harry Blackmun and John Paul Stevens joined that opinion in part but also wrote their own concurring opinions.

Thomas joined the minority and dissented along with Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Byron White. Thomas is the only justice from that time who is still on the court, the others having retired and in some cases, passed away.

Since 1992, Thomas has made no secret of the fact that he believed Roe was wrongly decided and ought to be overturned. He's directly challenged the reasoning of the 1973 court in his own writings as a justice.

Associate Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas
In this combination mage, Associate Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas (inset) speaks at the Heritage Foundation on October 21, 2021 in Washington, DC and Pro-abortion protesters during a ShutDownDC demonstration outside the US Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., US, on Monday, June 13, 2022. Thomas has long expressed his view that Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided. Getty

In 2020, the court blocked a Louisiana law that critics said would have effectively closed all the state's abortion clinics. Thomas wrote a dissent that took aim at Roe in unambiguous terms.

"Our abortion precedents are grievously wrong and should be overruled," Thomas wrote. "The idea that the Framers of the Fourteenth Amendment understood the Due Process Clause to protect a right to abortion is farcical."

In Roe, the justices ruled 7 to 2 that the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment protected a woman's right to an abortion.

Thomas went on in his 2020 dissent: "As the origins of this jurisprudence readily demonstrate, the putative right to abortion is a creation that should be undone."

"But today's decision is wrong for a far simpler reason: The Constitution does not constrain the States' ability to regulate or even prohibit abortion. This Court created the right to abortion based on an amorphous, unwritten right to privacy," he wrote.

Thomas was in the minority on the question of abortion for decades but the changing makeup of the court during former President Donald Trump's administration meant that an overturning Roe became a real possibility.

The court now has a 6-3 conservative majority, which has made Chief Justice John Roberts less influential.

Roberts, a conservative, had frequently voted with the liberals in several high-profile cases, leading to decisions split 5 to 4. Now, there is a solid block of five conservatives and Roberts' swing vote is no longer decisive.

The composition of the court today is also partly due to a more partisan political atmosphere than prevailed when Thomas was nominated in 1991.

The Republican Senate majority refused to hold hearings for then-President Barack Obama's nominee, Merrick Garland, in 2016 following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. This allowed former President Trump to nominate conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch to the role.

Trump went on to appoint Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, who was confirmed by the Senate following the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Her confirmation took place just days before the 2020 presidential election.

Those changes had made the court more likely to overturn Roe and Thomas' own influence was in evidence. Mississippi Solicitor General Scott Stewart argued the case for the state and is a former clerk for Thomas.

During oral arguments in December, Stewart urged the justices to "just go all the way and overrule Roe and Casey." Thomas and a majority of his colleagues have obliged.

The ultimate results of the decision and political fallout for the court remain to be seen, but overturning Roe has been a long-term goal for Thomas, who has achieved it after more than 30 years.