abortion, abortion rights, birth control, Clarence Thomas, Constitution, contraception, Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, Following Up, gay marriage, Ninth Amendmen, Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, privacy, Roe v. Wade, same-sex marriage, Samuel Alito, Supreme Court
Even by the standards of the shameful misinformation- and sheer ignorance-dominated era in which we live, the national abortion debate is noteworthy for the shameful misinformation and sheer ignorance it’s generated, So I thought it would be useful to provide some crucial correctives.
First, the 1973 Supreme Court Roe v. Wade ruling just overturned by six of today’s Justices did not create an absolute Constitutional right to an abortion. That majority opinion specifically stated that
“appellant [Jane Roe, the pseudonym of the pregnant woman who brought the case] and some amici [individuals and organizations that provided supportive “friends of the court” briefs] argue that the woman’s right is absolute and that she is entitled to terminate her pregnancy at whatever time, in whatever way, and for whatever reason she alone chooses. With this we do not agree. Appellant’s arguments that Texas either has no valid interest at all in regulating the abortion decision, or no interest strong enough to support any limitation upon the woman’s sole determination, are unpersuasive. The Court’s decisions recognizing a right of privacy also acknowledge that some state regulation in areas protected by that right is appropriate. As noted above, a State may properly assert important interests in safeguarding health, in maintaining medical standards, and in protecting potential life. At some point in pregnancy, these respective interests become sufficiently compelling to sustain regulation of the factors that govern the abortion decision.”
The Roe majority added its agreement with prior federal and state court decisions that, although the right of privacy “is broad enough to cover the abortion decision; that the right, nonetheless, is not absolute and is subject to some limitations; and that at some point the state interests as to protection of health, medical standards, and prenatal life, become dominant.” .
Second, as a result, “codifying Roe” through Congressional legislation, as sought by many critics of the Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson [Mississippi] Women’s Health Organization ruling overturning Roe, would not create an absolute Constitutional right to an abortion, either. In fact, the specific legislation offered in the House and Senate would clash violently with both the Roe and the follow-on 1992 Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey decision by preventing the state or federal governments from imposing any limits on abortions “after fetal viability.” as long as “in the good-faith medical judgment of the treating health care provider, continuation of the pregnancy would pose a risk to the pregnant patient’s life or health.”
Third, whatever was contained in legislation establishing national abortion rights, an act of Congress could well wind up providing only the most short-lived of guarantees. For that law would be likely targeted for abolition as soon as anti-abortion politicians gained sufficient control of both Houses of Congress and/or the Presidency (depending of course on whether a majority achieving this goal was veto-proof). And if the Senate filibuster is ended – another goal of many abortion rights backers – scrapping an abortion rights law would be even easier.
Fourth, I wrote on Friday that a Constitutional right to privacy is essential for any political system like America’s that claims to value individual liberties, whether it’s explicitly mentioned in the U.S. Constitution or not. As with all legitimate rights, it can’t be absolute – because in principle and in real life, too many of these can come into conflict. But without an underlying right to privacy, no limits on government’s authority to control individual behavior would exist save those that are explicitly mentioned in the Constitution.
These are numerous and important (like freedom of expression and religion, the right to keep and bear arms, to be protected against unreasonable searches and seizures). And although it’s often overlooked, the Ninth Amendment holds that “certain rights” not enumerated in the Constitution must be “retained by the people.”
But the text of the Ninth Amendment offers no examples or guidance of any kind. And without an underlying right to privacy, it’s not the slightest bit difficult to understand that despite the assurance offered by the Dobbs majority, many other current individual liberties could be endangered. Nor is the evidence limited to Justice Clarence Thomas’ opinion concurring with the Dobbs ruling, which argued that with the right to privacy out of the way, Supreme Court rulings legalizing contraception, same sex marriages, and same sex relationships should be overturned with the same logic.
Even now, politicians in some states are moving to outlaw certain kinds of birth control devices. And it’s surely pertinent to note that Dobbs opinion author Justice Samuel Alito – who insisted that “It is hard to see where we could be clearer” in stating that the majority opposed equating the legalit of abortion and the legality the other forms of intimate behavior mentioned above – himself opposed the 2015 pro same-sex marriage decision using the exact same kinds of arguments he made in Dobbs. So I certainly think he could have been clearer.
But there’s another important reason to prize a right to privacy. It has to do with the nature of constitutions themselves. Their whole point (unless they’re the phony kind concocted by dictatorships) is establishing limits on government. Why else bother with such exercises? And what set of limits on government is more crucial than those determining how it can and cannot treat private individuals’ behavior?
These four aspects of the abortion rights debate certainly don’t exhaust the list of falsehoods and plain old hare-brained ideas warping a controversy that’s otherwise entirely legitimate and necessary. But the sooner they’re recognized and cashiered, the likelier the nation will be to craft (or re-craft, as I’d put it, given my belief that Roe and Casey got the basics right) an abortion consensus behind which Americans can unify.