On year’s anniversary of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, abortion rights in limbo

One year ago, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a towering women’s rights champion who became the court’s second female justice, died at her home in Washington at the age of 87. She died of complications from pancreatic cancer.

Ginsburg spent her final years on the bench as the unquestioned leader of the court’s liberal wing and became something of a rock star to her admirers. Young women especially seemed to embrace her, affectionately calling her the Notorious RBG, for her defense of the rights of women and minorities, and the strength and resilience she displayed in the face of personal loss and health crises.

Those health issues included five bouts with cancer beginning in 1999, falls that resulted in broken ribs, insertion of a stent to clear a blocked artery and assorted other hospitalizations after she turned 75.

Her death, just six weeks before Election Day, set off a battle over whether President Donald Trump should nominate a successor, or if the seat should remain vacant until the outcome of the election. Trump went on to nominate Amy Coney Barrett, who was confirmed by the Republican-led Senate just days before the election.

Barrett’s confirmation cemented conservative control of the court after Trump placed two other justices during his presidency — Brett Kavanaugh in 2018 and Neil Gorsuch in 2017.

Many saw Ginsburg’s death and the newly-tipped conservative court as a path to overturning Roe v. Wade.

Ginsburg had authored powerful dissents of her own in cases involving abortion.

She dissented forcefully from the court’s decision in 2007 to uphold a nationwide ban on an abortion procedure that opponents call partial-birth abortion. The court had struck down a similar state ban seven years earlier. The "alarming" ruling, Ginsburg said, "cannot be understood as anything other than an effort to chip away at a right declared again and again by this court — and with increasing comprehension of its centrality to women’s lives."

RELATED: Read Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s final dissenting opinion

Many saw the path to overturning Roe v. Wade get clearer earlier this month when the court didn’t block a new Texas law banning most abortions. The law is the biggest restriction of abortion rights since the court's landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that women have a constitutional right to abortion, and supporters of abortion rights say it's evidence Roe v. Wade is threatened.

The court suggested it was not their last word on the matter.

Now, all eyes are on the Supreme Court this week in a different abortion case. 

Abortion providers are urging the Supreme Court to reject Mississippi’s 15-week prohibition on most abortions, saying a decision to uphold it would "invite states to ban abortion entirely."

Mississippi already has told the court it should overrule its 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade. The providers wrote that if the court upholds the Mississippi law, it would lead quickly to the elimination of abortion services in large sections of the Midwest and South.

Meanwhile, some conservative justices this month have spoken on their roles and public perception as of late. 

Barrett, speaking at a lecture hosted by the University of Louisville’s McConnell Center on Sept, 12, said justices must be "hyper vigilant to make sure they’re not letting personal biases creep into their decisions, since judges are people, too."

Barrett said the media’s reporting of opinions doesn’t capture the deliberative process in reaching those decisions. And she insisted that "judicial philosophies are not the same as political parties."

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, speaking at the University of Notre Dame on Sept. 16, criticized some in the judiciary for veering into the role of legislators and politicians, saying it is not the role of judges to make policy or to base decisions on their personal feelings or religious beliefs.

Thomas said judges "venturing into areas we should not have entered into" is part of why the nomination process, particularly for federal judges with lifetime appointments like himself, is so contentious.

"The court was thought to be the least dangerous branch and we may have become the most dangerous," Thomas said. "And I think that’s problematic."

He did not cite any specific examples.

Many were speculating if liberal justice Stephen Breyer was going to announce his retirement at the end of the court’s term earlier this summer. Liberal activists have been pushing for his departure while Democrats hold a narrow majority in the Senate.

Breyer — and Ginsburg — resisted calls to step down the last time Democrats controlled Congress and the White House, when Barack Obama was president.

Ginsburg’s appointment by President Bill Clinton in 1993 was the first by a Democrat in 26 years. She initially found a comfortable ideological home somewhere left of center on a conservative court dominated by Republican appointees. Her liberal voice grew stronger the longer she served.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.