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The abortion case is named after Thomas Dobbs, who says he has nothing to do with it

Thomas Dobbs is the state health officer at the Mississippi State Department of Health. His name appears on the landmark Supreme Court case on abortion rights, despite having "nothing to do with it," he has said.
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Thomas Dobbs is the state health officer at the Mississippi State Department of Health. His name appears on the landmark Supreme Court case on abortion rights, despite having "nothing to do with it," he has said.

The Supreme Court ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization clears the way for states to reshape abortion law in the U.S., nearly 50 years after the court enshrined abortion rights at the federal level in the Roe v. Wade decision.

The Dobbs case came to the high court from Mississippi, where the Jackson Women's Health Organization has long been the only abortion provider. In 2018, the state enacted a law that bans abortion after 15 weeks, with few exceptions — and not for cases involving rape or incest.

The Jackson clinic and one of its doctors sued Mississippi officials in federal court, saying the state's law was unconstitutional.

A federal district court and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the clinic, blocking Mississippi's law. But the state appealed to the Supreme Court, which put the case on its docket.

The case's namesake says he's had "nothing to do with it"

Justices in the majority compared their ruling to overturn Roe to the Supreme Court's overturning of its 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision.

After Friday's ruling, Thomas Dobbs' name will likely occupy a similar standing — shorthand for a seismic event in the nation's legal history. But Dobbs, a physician who is Mississippi's top health officer, says he has had nothing to do with the case that bears his name.

"It's just a quirk," Dobbs has said. His name is on the case, he noted, because of sovereign immunity protections. Instead of suing his state agency directly, plaintiffs must name Dobbs in court papers, because he's the executive in charge of the agency that inspects the Jackson clinic.

"Actually, that law passed before I was even in this job," Dobbs said, referring to Mississippi's abortion restriction that triggered the federal case. "Honestly, I have nothing to do with it."

Dobbs is an infectious diseases doctor who became Mississippi's top health officer in 2018. He's set to leave the post in July, saying he'll become dean of the University of Mississippi Medical Center's school of population health.

While people around the country invoked his name to discuss the future of abortion rights in the U.S., Dobbs has been trying to help Mississippi fight the COVID-19 pandemic. His tweets, for instance, often urge people to get vaccine booster shots, and seek out treatments such as Paxlovid and monoclonals if they get sick.

The state's case turned on the viability standard

When the Supreme Court granted Mississippi's request to hear the abortion law case, it limited itself to one question: "Whether all pre-viability prohibitions on elective abortions are unconstitutional."

The notion of viability is crucial in abortion law. As Priscilla Smith, a supporter of abortion rights and director for the Program for the Study of Reproduction Justice at Yale Law School, told NPR late last year, "The central tenet of Roe is the availability of abortions up to viability."

Mississippi's petition to the Supreme Court called that standard "unsatisfactory." It also noted that fetal viability has changed over time, thanks to advances in obstetrics and medical technology.

"Tomorrow, development of an artificial womb will inevitably move the 'viability' line to the moment of conception," the state wrote in its petition.

Attorneys for Jackson Women's Health Organization said the central question of viability was already settled — by Roe v. Wade in 1973 and by Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey in 1992.

The clinic wanted the Supreme Court to affirm the Fifth Circuit's decision, citing "nearly fifty years of precedent." But a majority of justices ruled that Roe had been wrongly decided, returning control of abortions to the states.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: June 25, 2022 at 11:00 PM CDT
An earlier version of this story used an incorrect title for Priscilla Smith. She's the director for the Program for the Study of Reproduction Justice at Yale Law School.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.