The Supreme Court has finally decided to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling supporting a Constitutional right to an abortion based on the majority’s vigorously argued position that “Roe was…egregiously wrong and on a collision course with the Constitution from the day it was decided” and that the follow-on 1992 Casey decision “perpetuated its errors.”
Maybe so, but at least based largely on the official summary (the Syllabus) of today’s ruling released by the Court, the six Justices who backed the Dobbs v. Jackson (Mississippi) Women’s Health Organization decision expressed some views themselves about what government can and can’t regulate that look pretty internally contradictory at first glance and that seem – eggregiously – at variance with ideas about Americans’ liberties that – to quote a legal standard they cite – are “deeply rooted in [our] history and tradition” and “essential to this Nation’s ‘scheme of ordered liberty.’”
Perhaps first and foremost, the Dobbs ruling states that “the authority to regulate abortion is returned to the people and their elected representatives.” And at least since a draft of the decision making this point was leaked in May, any number of pro-life supporters have argued that rescinding the right to an abortion by no means amounts to a nation-wide ban on the practice, and that states will remain perfectly free to keep or enact permissive abortion policies.
But in Dobbs, the Court has also called abortion a “critical moral question” because it “destroys what Roe termed ‘potential life’ and what the law challenged in this case calls an ‘unborn human being.’” Today’s Dobbs decision emphasizes this point in order to insist that their judgement poses no intrinsic challenge to other rights concerning highly personal behaviors, like the availability of birth control or gay marriage – which presumably don’t rise to abortion’s level.
All of which raises the question: If abortion is in a morality class by itself because of its devastating effects on the unborn, why do the six Justices supporting the Dobbs decision believe that states should have the any authority to regulate it? What satisfactory definition of morality could permit such a uniquely heinous practice to be permitted anywhere in the United States? Why, indeed, should it not be banned nationally – with or without whatever exceptions this or future Courts happen to allow.
In fact, contrary to the majority’s views, today’s Dobbs decision leaves in place many of the gravest threats to Americans’ freedom from government’s reach that appeared to receive support in the leaked draft version. Principally, the Court has now affirmed that not only does the Constitution grant no right to an abortion. It also holds that there’s no right to privacy having to do with the freedom to make “intimate and personal choices” that are “central to personal dignity and autonomy.”
To be sure, the six Justices in the majority correctly contend that no Constitutionally granted rights are absolute, observing that this founding document creates a system of “ordered liberty” that “sets limits and defines the boundary between competing interests” – and also, by extension, between competing rights, since many regularly clash with each other in real life.
But if the American system of government and law aren’t distinguished fundamentally by the assumption that a substantial burden of proof lies with government for infringing on the freedom to make “intimate and personal choices” related to “personal dignity and autonomy,” then it’s difficult to imagine fundamentally what it is distinguished by. In other words, if you can’t find something like a “right to privacy” in the Constitution, you’re not looking very hard.
And ironically, just yesterday, the Court supported this kind of argument when it struck down New York State’s “concealed carry” gun control law. That majority argued that this statute unconstitutionally “required law-abiding, responsible citizens to ‘demonstrate a special need for self-protection distinguishable from that of the general community’ to carry arms in public.” That is, an excessive burden of proof was placed on ordinary Americans, when it should belong to government. Why shouldn’t this kind of reasoning apply to abortion?
Finally, how can anyone believe that “a State’s regulation of abortion is not a sex-based classification” that “violates the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause?” What men does the Dobbs majority believe will be affected by its decision? And how can these Justices reject the – inevitably gender-based — logic of the Casey decision’s statement that
“The Roe rule’s limitation on state power could not be repudiated without serious inequity to people who, for two decades of economic and social developments, have organized intimate relationships and made choices that define their views of themselves and their places in society, in reliance on the availability of abortion in the event that contraception should fail. The ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the Nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives”?
One claim made by many Dobbs supporters is true — the practical, on-the-ground effects of the decision will be limited for the time being , mainly because the total numbers of legal U.S. abortions have been falling significantly in the last three decades, and because practically all of these have taken place during a pregnancy’s first trimester. (See here for the data.) Interestingly, that’s after Mississippi’s proposed abortion near-ban would go into effect.
Moreover, some other so-called “trigger laws” will allow abortions early in pregnancies, too. But others (see, e.g., here) will significantly narrow this window (even outlawing the procedure before most women even know they’re carrying), and in some of these and others, the lack of exceptions for instances of rape and incest, for example, are truly abhorrent. And now with Dobbs the law of the land, who knows what other outrages may lie in store?
At one point the Dobbs ruling, the majority wrote that “In interpreting what is meant by ‘liberty,’ the Court must guard against the natural human tendency to confuse what the Fourteenth Amendment protects with the Court’s own ardent
views about the liberty that Americans should enjoy.” As far as I’m concerned, that advice about leaving personal beliefs out of judicial decisions is a vitally important rule of thumb across the legal board, and as indicated by the above examples of tortured reasoning in today’s abortion rights decision, it’s one the Dobbs majority just threw under the bus.