Myths about Roe v. Wade

Hobby Lobby Day!

SCOTUS

As both an active member of the pro-life movement and a law student, I am frequently confronted with the fact that the vast majority of activists on both sides of the abortion debate have many misconceptions about what Roe v. Wade actually says about the legality of abortion. Most of this arises from the fact that they have not read the case themselves, or if they did read it, they were unable to understand it due to a lack of legal training. My goal is to attempt to clear up four of the most common myths surroundingRoe v. Wade, and the legal state of abortion in general, so that our conversations about the issue will be more informed going forward.

Myth #1: Abortion is a “Fundamental Right”

Many abortion supporters, including elected officials and leaders of pro-abortion organizations, will tell you that the Supreme Court declared abortion a fundamental right in Roe v. Wade, but this simply is not true. In fact, no majority opinion by the Supreme Court has ever declared abortion a fundamental right.

In Constitutional Law, there are three levels of “judicial scrutiny” the Court will use when deciding cases, these levels are: (1) Strict Scrutiny, (2) Intermediate Scrutiny, and (3) Rational Basis Scrutiny. When a fundamental right is at issue in a case, the Court must use the highest level of scrutiny, Strict Scrutiny. Under Strict Scrutiny, the Court presumes the policy to be invalid unless the government can demonstrate a compelling interest to justify the policy being challenged.

While much of the language used in Roe seemed to imply Strict Scrutiny, the Court did not actually declare the right fundamental, and subsequent cases prove this. Indeed, many of the abortion cases that the Court heard between Roe and Planned Parenthood v. Casey dealt with overturning this presumption by the lower courts, though often with contradictory results.

For example, the Court struck down all abortion regulations inPlanned Parenthood v. Danforth (1976), City of Akron v. Akron Center for Reproductive Health, Inc. (1983), and Thornburg v. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (1986), but upheld similar and further regulations in Harris v. McRae (1980), Rust v. Sullivan(1991), Connecticut v. Menillo (1975), and Bellotti v. Baird (1976).[1]

In these sometimes contradictory rulings, the Court seemed unsure of how to apply its own rule from Roe. For example, while Thornburgcalled abortion a “fundamental right,” the Court did not apply Strict Scrutiny.[2] Likewise in Bellotti and Harris, the Court referred only to an “undue burden” or “unduly burdensome” analysis, again ignoring the usual standard of review for “fundamental rights”.[3]

Finally, in 1992’s Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Court clearly ruled that abortion is not a fundamental right by adopting an Intermediate Scrutiny approach known as “Undue Burden.” Instead of the government having to prove a “compelling interest”, the burden of proof was now placed on those challenging the law, who must prove that the law places an “Undue Burden” on a woman seeking an abortion. Since then, the “Undue Burden” standard has been used in every case dealing with abortion to be heard before the US Supreme Court, clearly showing that abortion is not a fundamental right.

Myth #2: Roe legalized abortion only in the first three months.

This myth was actually repeated by my Constitutional Law professor last year, until I corrected him, and is so pervasive that the vast majority of Americans genuinely believe that it is true. In fact, when polling is done regarding public opinions about Roe,many of the pollsters frame their question in these terms: “In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that states laws which made it illegal for a woman to have an abortion up to three months of pregnancy were unconstitutional, and that the decision on whether a woman should have an abortion up to three months of pregnancy should be left to the woman and her doctor to decide. In general, do you favor or oppose this part of the U.S. Supreme Court decision making abortions up to three months of pregnancy legal?”[4]

The actual ruling in Roe split the ability of governments to regulate abortion into three categories, based on the medical classification of trimesters. Under this trimester framework, the Court banned any regulations during the first trimester, allowed minimal regulations related to maternal health in the second trimester, and allowed most regulations in the third trimester.[5] In short, the Court actually legalized all abortions prior to viability,which it placed at about 28 weeks, which is about seven months, not three months.[6]

However, in both Roe and the companion case Doe, the Court ruled that even after the child is viable, there must be a “health exception” that allows the mother to abort for almost any reason:[7]

“All factors-physical, emotional, psychological, familial, and the woman’s age-relevant to the well-being of the patient…”

“Maternity, or additional offspring, may force upon the woman a distressful life and future. Psychological harm may be imminent. Mental and physical health may be taxed by child care. There is also the distress, for all concerned, associated with the unwanted child, and there is the problem of bringing a child into a family already unable, psychologically and otherwise, to care for it. In other cases … the additional difficulties and continuing stigma of unwed motherhood may be involved. All these are factors the woman and her responsible physician necessarily will consider in consultation.”

Under these factors, pro-life legal scholars have pointed out that since the abortionist is the one who determines whether a woman’s health is at risk, the “definition of a woman’s health is so broad that there would never be a time when a woman could not find an abortionist willing to perform an abortion.”[8]

Myth #3: Overturning Roe will put women in jail.

Another common myth is that women would be thrown in jail for getting an abortion if Roe was overturned. However, Roe’s core holding is that abortion cannot be banned by the state, so overturning it would not result in a nation-wide ban on abortion; it would merely return the issue for the states to decide for themselves. In order for a nation-wide ban to occur, the Court would have to go a step further than just overturning Roe, and hold that the preborn are “persons” under the 14th Amendment, and therefore abortion is a violation of the Due Process Clause. Unless the Supreme Court did this in addition to overturning Roe, abortion would remain legal unless a state chose to expressly ban it.

While it is true that some states, like my home state of Louisiana, have trigger laws that would automatically ban abortion if Roe is overturned, most of them do not. The reality of a post-Roe America would most likely mirror the level of regulations that exist in the present day- conservative states with many current regulations might chose to ban abortion, more liberal states would leave their regulations the same and still allow abortions to continue as before.

Even in those states that would chose to  ban abortion, it would be very unlikely that women would be sent to jail for getting an abortion. Looking back pre-Roe, when most states banned abortion, there are only two known cases in which a woman was charged in any State with participating in her own abortion- one in Pennsylvania in 1911, and one in Texas in 1922. There is no documented case since 1922 in which a woman has been charged in an abortion in the United States.

In reality, the woman was typically treated as a second victim of abortion, the real target of these laws, and of the criminal prosecution that resulted from them, was the abortionist. Prosecuting a woman as an accomplice to the abortionist raised serious evidentiary problems that made it counterproductive- the testimony of an accomplice alone is not enough to meet the burden of proof in a criminal case, and the accomplice’s testimony must be corroborated by another source. It was difficult to prosecute abortionists under this requirement, and in order to convince women to testify against the abortionist, prosecutors had to promise them that they would not be charged for admitting to an abortion.[9]

Myth #4: Abortion bans were created to protect women because abortion was dangerous.

In their oral arguments before the Court, Roe’s lawyers argued that most state laws against abortion were implemented solely to protect the woman from a dangerous procedure; but this could not be further from the truth.  In fact, in the opinion Justice Blackmun wrote in Roe, he acknowledged that it was the attitude of the medical profession that played a significant role in the enactment of the stringent criminal abortion legislation of the late 1800s, and even quoted the American Medical Association’s 1857 report on abortion, in which the AMA called abortion an ”unwarrantable destruction of human life,” and called to upon state legislatures to revise their abortion laws and encouraged state medical societies to press the subject.[10] The result of this, which has been called “The Physician’s Crusade against Abortion”, was the implementation of many of the same abortion bans that were struck down by Roe nearly a hundred years later.

 Footnotes

[1] Planned Parenthood v. Danforth, 428 U.S. 52 (1976); City of Akron v. Akron Center for Reproductive Health, Inc., 462 U.S. 416 (1983);Thornburg v. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, 476 U.S. 747 (1986); Harris v. McRae, 448 U.S. 297 (1980); Rust v. Sullivan, 500 U.S. 173 (1991); Connecticut v. Menillo, 423 U.S. 9, 10 (1975); Bellotti v. Baird, 428 U.S. 132 (1976).

[2] Thornburg, 476 U.S. at 772.

[3] Bellotti, 443 U.S. at 640; Harris, 448 U.S. at 235.

[4] Harris Polling Question from The Wall Street Journal http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB114668092648642849

[5] Roe, 410 U.S. 154-6

[6] Id., at 160.

[7] Doe, 410 U.S. at 180; Roe, 410 U.S. at 149.

[8] Clarke Forsythe et al., Constitutional Law & Abortion Primer, 10 (William L. Saunders ed., Americans United for Life 2011) available at: http://www.aul.org/primer/.

[9] Forsythe, Clark, Why the States Did Not Prosecute Women for Abortion Before Roe v. Wade. http://www.aul.org/2010/04/why-the-states-did-not-prosecute-women-for-abortion-before-roe-v-wade/

[10] Roe, at 141-2.

****I’ve done a shorter version of this post as part of my series about the Viability of Roe, but I wanted to update it and expand it for a full length article for Live Action. You can also read it here on their site.*****

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The Viability of Roe, Part 5: Is Abortion Good for Women?

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“All factors-physical, emotional, psychological, familial, and the woman’s age-relevant to the well-being of the patient…”[1]

“Maternity, or additional offspring, may force upon the woman a distressful life and future. Psychological harm may be imminent. Mental and physical health may be taxed by child care. There is also the distress, for all concerned, associated with the unwanted child, and there is the problem of bringing a child into a family already unable, psychologically and otherwise, to care for it. In other cases … the additional difficulties and continuing stigma of unwed motherhood may be involved. All these are factors the woman and her responsible physician necessarily will consider in consultation.”[2]

These are the words used by Justice Blackmun in Roe and her companion case Doe v Bolton, to describe the so-called “health exception” in regards to the right to abortion. Additionally, Justice Blackmun implied that abortion was safer for the mother[3]. He also repeats this and go, saying that “advances in medicine and medical techniques have made it safer for a woman to have a medically induced abortion than for her to bear a child.”[4] But the credibility of these sources cited in regards to this claim, has been seriously called into question by many people.[5] Even today, maternal mortality and abortion mortality rates cannot be compared, due to the fact that neither federal nor state governments maintain any system of human form and mandatory reporting of abortion deaths or injuries. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention depends completely on voluntary reporting systems and estimates the maternal deaths are underreported by 30 to 150 percent.[6] also things that have nothing to do with the biological risks of pregnancy, such as accidents, and homicides are also included in maternal death figures, this means that maternal death numbers are likely inflated, while the lack of reporting requirements means that abortion death figures are likely under  reported.[7]

Even Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider, acknowledges that abortion has many short-term risks, including blood loss, blood clots, incomplete abortions (which occur when part of the unborn child or other products of pregnancy are not completely emptied from the uterus), infections, and injury to the cervix or other organs, including cervical lacerations and incompetent cervix – a condition that can also affect subsequent pregnancies.[8]

Additionally, at that time there had been no studies done on the long-term effects abortion can have on women, both physically and emotionally. In the more than 40 years since Roe, doctors and psychologists have documented at least six long-term risks associated with abortion[9]:

  • Increased risk of preterm birth or premature delivery and future pregnancies.
  • Increased risk of placenta previa and future pregnancies.[10]
  • Increased incidence of drug and alcohol abuse.
  • Increased risk of suicide in psychiatric admission after abortion.
  • Loss of the protective effect against breast cancer of the first full term pregnancy.
  • Increased risk of violence and assault after abortion

Preterm birth occurs when the child is born prior to the 37th week of pregnancy, and it is very dangerous to the child. In fact, according to the US Center for Disease Control premature birth is a leading cause of infant mortality in the United States.[11] Preterm birth can also be a risk factor for later disabilities, including cerebral palsy and behavior problems in the child.[12]

As of right now over 130 published studies have shown statistically significant association between induced abortion and subsequent preterm birth or low birth weight. Three different systematic studies were performed in 2009, and each one demonstrated the risk of preterm birth following induced abortions.[13] The increased risk of preterm birth in these studies fell between 20% and 37%, increasing exponentially to over 100% when the woman had multiple abortions. The Institute of Medicine, a section within the National Academy of Science, also lists first trimester abortion as a risk factor for subsequent preterm birth. [14]

Placenta previa, which is when the placenta covers all or some of the cervix, is another condition associated with previous abortions that can cause serious health risks for women. The mother can experience life-threatening hemorrhaging, and the child is placed in danger of perinatal death or medically indicated preterm birth.[15] Three separate studies showed a 50 percent increase in the risk of placenta previa after an induced abortion,[16] while another study found that the risk of placenta previa can more than double when the mother has had two or more abortions.[17]

The link between breast cancer and abortion has been hotly contested over the years, but it is scientifically indisputable, that a woman’s first full-term pregnancy can reduce her lifetime risk of breast cancer.[18] A 2003 study concluded that “clinicians are obligated to inform a pregnant woman that a decision to abort her first pregnancy. They almost doubled her lifetime risk of breast cancer through loss of the protective effect of a completed full-term pregnancy earlier in life.”[19] Additionally, at least thirty-one studies have raised the possibility that induced abortion is an “independent risk” for breast cancer, or that induced abortion can directly cause breast cancer.[20]

One of the most disturbing consequences of abortion is the mental health impact. While Justice Blackmun focused on the opinion that pregnancy and motherhood could lead to psychological distress or harm, we now have evidence that abortion increases a woman’s risk of mental health problems. As Dr. Mary Calderone, the former medical director of Planned Parenthood, once admitted: “…in almost every case, abortion, whether legal or illegal, is a traumatic experience that may have severe consequences later on.”[21]

In 2011, a groundbreaking study on the effects of abortion on mental health was published in the British Journal of psychiatry, which is a publication of Britain’s Royal College of Psychiatrists. The results of this study showed a moderate to high increased risk of mental health problems after abortion, specifically a 34% higher risk of anxiety, 30% higher risk of depression, 110% higher rate of alcohol use, 220% higher marijuana use, and 155% higher risk of suicidal behavior.[22] In fact, in his book Abuse of Discretion, Clarke Forsythe points to the fact that there have been more than one hundred peer-reviewed studies published in international medical journals, suggesting an association between abortion and adverse mental health outcomes.[23]

Recently there have been disturbing cases of men attempting to force or trick their partners into abortions, such as New York pharmacist Orbin Tercero, who was convicted in 2011 of lacing his partners drink with an abortive drug or Thomas Hill, who sexually assaulted his partner in front of their children after she refused to get an abortion for a subsequent pregnancy.[24]

While not all studies agree with these outcomes, and some come down on both sides of the issue, there’s clearly a need for further research into this issue. At the very least, these studies suggest that the Supreme Court was too hasty in supposing that abortion was good for women.

 

[1]

[2] Doe, 410 US at 192

[3] Roe, 410 US at 149

[4] Doe, 410 US at 190

[5] Abuse of discretion, pages 155-180

[6] Letter of Julie Louise Gerberding, M.D., M.P.H, , director, Centers for Disease Control, July 20, 2004, reprinted in brief amicus cure I have the American Center for Law and Justice in Gonzales v. Carhart, 550 US 124 (2007), Gonzales v Planned Parenthood Federation of America, 2005 US briefs, 1382.

[7] Abuse of discretion, page 175.

[8] See http://www.plannedparenthood.org/health-topics/abortion/in-clinic-abortion-procedures-4359.asp

[9] The cost of choice (Erika bachioci); Reardon, strahan, thorpe and shuping, deaths associated with abortion compared to childbirth, 20 J.contemporary health law and policy, 279, spring 2004; Clarke Forsythe and Stephen B Presser, tragic failure of Roe V Wade: why abortion should be returned to the states, 10 Texas review of law and policy, 87, 2005; abuse of discretion, pages 155 through 180;  Thorpe, hartmann and shadigian, “long-term physical and psychological health consequences of induced abortion.

[11] Jim Thorpe et al, long-term physical and psychological health consequences of induced abortions: review of the evidence, obstrectial and gynecological survey 58(1):67, 68 (2003).

[12] W.M. Callaghan, contribution of preterm birth to infant mortality rates in the US, pediatrics 118(4): 1566 (oct 2006); B.Rooney & B.C Calhoun, induced abortion and risk of  later premature births. Physicisans & Surgeons 8(2): 46, 46-47 (2003).

[13] P. shah et al. induced termination of pregnancy and low birth weight and preterm birth: a systematic review and meta-analysis, B.J.O.G. 116(11):1425 (2009); R.H. van Oppenraaij et al, predicting adverse obstetric outcome after early pregnancy events and complications: a review, Human Reproduction. Update Advance Access 1:1 (Mar. 7, 2009); H.M. Swingle et al., Abortion and the Risk of Subsequent preterm Birth: a systematic review and meta-analysis, J. Repro. Med. 54:95 (2009).

[14] R.E. Behrman, Preterm Birth: Casues, Consequences and Prevention 519 (2006)

[15] J.M Thorpe et al., supra at 75.

[16] see  Forsythe abuse of discretion, page 255

[17] J.M. Thorpe et al., supra at 70-71

[18] Reeves, Kan, Key, et al., Breast Cancer Risk in Relation to Abortion, at 1741. See also Forscythe, Abuse of Discretion, supra pg 263-4

[19] JM Thorpe et al., supra, at 76

[20] See generally, Lanfranchi, The Abortion-Breast Cancer Link; M.C. Pike et al. Oral Contraceotive Use and Early Abortion as Risj Factors for Breast Cancer in Young Women, British Journal of Cancer 43 (1981); L.A. Brinton et al., Reproductive Factors in the Etiology of Breast Cancer, British Journal of Cancer 47 (1983)

[21] Calderone, illegal abortion as a public health problem, at 951.

[22] P. Coleman, Abortion and mental health: quantitative synthesis and analysis of research published 1995-2009, BJP 199:180-186 (2011)

[23] Page 257 ,citing  Letter to office of the United Nations High Commissioner on human rights, November 27, 2009 attachment  two, available at http://www.aaplog.org/internationalissues/aaplog-objection-to-incusion-of-universal-acess-to-reproductive-healthcare-as-a-part-of-mdg-5-letter-to-un-high-commissioner-on-human-rights/.see, e.g., Berlin at all, reasons for induced abortion, 36; Cougle, Rearden and Coleman, generalized anxiety following unintended pregnancies; Gissler et al., injury, death, suicides and homicide; Bradshaw and Slade, the effects of induced abortion or emotional experiences and relationships.

[24] Forsythe, Clarke D. (2013-09-24). Abuse of Discretion: The Inside Story of Roe v. Wade (p. 442). Encounter Books. Kindle Edition.

The Viability of Roe, Part 2: From Roe to Carhart

PartialBirth_Method

While Roe did not expressly declare abortion to be a “fundamental right,” in the wake of the decision many lower federal courts certainly interpreted abortion as such.[1] Indeed, many of the abortion cases that the Court heard between Roe and Planned Parenthood v. Casey dealt with overturning this presumption by the lower courts. A brief overview of some of the major pre-Casey abortion cases will be beneficial in illustrating how the Court got from Roe to Casey:

  • Connecticut v. Menillo (1975) – In a per curium decision, the Court upheld Connecticut’s criminal prohibition against non-physicians performing abortions, stating that “Roe did not go that far.”[2]
  • Planned Parenthood v. Danforth (1976) – The Court upheld part of a state statute requiring a woman to give written consent prior to undergoing an abortion, but struck down spousal and parental consent requirements.[3]
  • Bellotti v. Baird (1976) – The Court this time upheld the requirement that a minor seeking an abortion must obtain parental consent, provided that there is the option for a “judicial bypass” whereby the minor can obtain consent from a judge if necessary.[4]
  • Harris v. McRae (1980) – The Court upheld the Hyde Amendment, which forbade federal funding of abortions. The Court reasoned in this case that abortion was not a fundamental right.[5]
  • City of Akron v Akron Center for Reproductive Health, Inc. (1983) – The Court struck down a 24 hour waiting period between the time a woman seeking an abortion received counseling, and when she could undergo the abortion procedure.[6]
  • Thornburg v. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (1986) – The Court struck down a number of state regulations, including informed consent requirements, reporting requirements for abortion clinics, and regulations on the medical aspects of the abortion procedure.[7] Though the majority referred to “a woman’s right to make that choice [abortion] freely [as] fundamental,” they did not apply strict scrutiny in their rationale.[8]
  • Rust v. Sullivan (1991) – The Court upheld federal finding regulations that restricted federal funding from be awarded to family planning clinics that counseled for, or performed abortions. The Court relied on Harris in its decision.[9]

As demonstrated by these sometimes contradictory rulings, the Court seemed unsure of how to apply its own rule from Roe. For example, while Thornburg called abortion a “fundamental right,” the Court chose not to apply a strict scrutiny standard of review in the case.[10] Likewise in Bellotti and Harris, the Court referred only to an “undue burden” or “unduly burdensome” analysis.[11]

A. Planned Parenthood v. Casey

The confusion over abortion law, as seen in the decisions listed above, intensified the national debate over the issue. In 1992, many believed that the Court was poised to overturn Roe, but instead, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey the Court decided to take a much narrower approach to redefining abortion jurisprudence.[12]

In taking a narrow approach, the three judge plurality purported to rely on the concept of stare decisis to reaffirm the central holding of Roe of “the right of the woman to choose to have an abortion before viability.”[13] In defense of this affirmation the plurality claimed Roe had “call[ed] the contending sides of a national controversy to end their national division by accepting a common mandate rooted in the Constitution.”[14] Furthering this argument, the plurality argued that overturning Roe would “seriously weaken the Court‘s capacity to exercise the judicial power and to function as the Supreme Court of a Nation dedicated to the rule of law.”[15] The plurality also relied on their belief that:

[F]or two decades of economic and social developments, people 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.[16]

 

In response to these claims, Justice Scalia and Chief Justice Rehnquist pulled no punches in their respective dissents. Answering the plurality’s argument that overturning Roe would weaken the Court, Justice Scalia had the following to say:

In my history book, the Court was covered with dishonor and deprived of legitimacy by Dred Scott v. Sandford, an erroneous (and widely opposed) opinion that it did not abandon, rather than by West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish, which produced the famous “switch in time” from the Court’s erroneous (and widely opposed) constitutional opposition to the social measures of the New Deal.[17]

 

 

Likewise, Chief Justice Rehnquist’s dissent responded to the plurality’s claim regarding women’s social and economic equality with similar skepticism:

The joint opinion’s assertion of this fact is undeveloped and totally conclusory. In fact, one cannot be sure to what economic and social developments the opinion is referring.  Surely it is dubious to suggest that women have reached their ‘places in society’ in reliance upon Roe, rather than as a result of their determination to obtain higher education and compete with men in the job market, and of society’s increasing recognition of their ability to fill positions that were previously thought to be reserved only for men… The “separate but equal” doctrine lasted 58 years after Plessy, and Lochner’s protection of contractual freedom lasted 32 years. However, the simple fact that a generation or more had grown used to these major decisions did not prevent the Court from correcting its errors in those cases, nor should it prevent us from correctly interpreting the Constitution here.[18]

 

Despite these harsh criticisms from their fellow justices, the plurality still chose to interpret stare decisis in a way that prevented them from overturning Roe. However, while the plurality claimed to be reaffirming the central holding of Roe they made significant changes to the Court’s existing abortion doctrine.

One of the biggest changes Casey made was expressly abandoning abortion as a fundamental privacy right, and the accompanying strict scrutiny standard of review. This shift from privacy to liberty is evidenced in what is sometimes mockingly referred to as Casey’s “Mystery of Life Passage”: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”[19]

In place of the previous standard, the plurality described abortion as a “protected liberty interest” that was measured according to an intermediate level standard of review called “undue burden.”[20] The plurality defined “undue burden” as a regulation that “has the purpose or effect of placing a substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion of a non-viable fetus.”[21]

But what exactly is “undue”? Under this standard, the Casey Court upheld informed consent, a 24 hour waiting period, reporting requirements for abortion facilities, parental consent (with judicial bypass), and a definition of “medical emergency” related to abortion; the only Casey requirement struck down was spousal consent.[22] But it is only contextually through cases that we can truly determine which burdens the Court believes are “undue’, as the guideline is difficult to interpret in a vacuum.

Justice Scalia has long been a critic of the “undue burden” standard, arguing that it places the Court in the inappropriate position of making legislative decisions regarding abortion legislation that are not guided by the Constitution, but rather are guided by the personal opinions and feelings of the individual Justices.[23]

Another major change the plurality made to Roe was to abandon the trimester framework set down in Roe, and focus solely on viability as the “compelling point.” In their reasoning, the plurality claimed that “there is no line other than viability which is more workable” as a compelling point for state’s interest to take hold.[24] The plurality also justified viability by arguing that there is an “element of fairness” in choosing it, because “in some broad sense it might be said that a woman who fails to act before viability has consented to the State’s intervention on behalf of the developing child.”[25] At this time the Court also recognized that medical technology had advanced to the point that viability was now generally accepted to be at approximately 21 weeks post-fertilization.[26] Finally, the plurality says that “the trimester framework… [did] not fulfill Roe’s own promise that the State has an interest in protecting fetal life or potential life.[27] Justice Kennedy, writing for the plurality, spends a considerable amount of time and space explaining the importance of the State’s “profound interest in potential human life.”[28] This is an argument Justice Kennedy would continue to defend eloquently in abortion subsequent cases.

In the opinion of the dissenters, Chief Justice Rehnquist, Justice White, Justice Scalia, and Justice Thomas, the state’s interest in protecting fetal life is profound enough to require that Roe be overturned in its entirety, so that states were free to ban abortion as they saw fit.[29]

B. Stenberg v. Carhart

The next major legal challenge to abortion came in 2000, when late term abortionist Leroy Carhart challenged Nebraska’s Partial-Birth Abortion Ban in Stenberg v. Carhart.[30] Nebraska’s ban sought to outlaw a specific method of abortion, which is described in gruesome detail in Justice Kennedy’s dissent:

[T]he abortionist initiates the woman’s natural delivery process by causing the cervix of the woman to be dilated, sometimes over a sequence of days. The fetus’ arms and legs are delivered outside the uterus while the fetus is alive; witnesses to the procedure report seeing the body of the fetus moving outside the woman’s body. At this point, the abortion procedure has the appearance of a live birth. As stated by one group of physicians, “as the physician manually performs breech extraction of the body of a live fetus, excepting the head, she continues in the apparent role of an obstetrician delivering a child.” With only the head of the fetus remaining in utero, the abortionist tears open the skull. According to Dr. Martin Haskell, a leading proponent of the procedure, the appropriate instrument to be used at this stage of the abortion is a pair of scissors. Witnesses report observing the portion of the fetus outside the woman, react to the skull penetration. The abortionist then inserts a suction tube and vacuums out the developing brain and other matter found within the skull. The process of making the size of the fetus’ head smaller is given the clinically neutral term “reduction procedure.” Brain death does not occur until after the skull invasion, and, according to Dr. Carhart, the heart of the fetus may continue to beat for minutes after the contents of the skull are vacuumed out. The abortionist next completes the delivery of a dead fetus, intact except for the damage to the head and the missing contents of the skull.[31]

 

Despite these grisly facts, the Court voted 5-4 that Nebraska’s Partial-Birth Abortion Ban was unconstitutionally vague because it did not adequately differentiate Partial-Birth Abortion from method, as well as finding that it violated the “undue burden” standard because it lacked a Roe style health exception.[32]

As the author of Casey, which he thought to be a grand compromise that would end the abortion debate once and for all, Justice Kennedy was furious and this can be seen in his scathing dissent. Justice Kennedy claims the majority in Stenberg has “a basic misunderstanding of Casey,”[33] and “contradict[ed] Casey’s premise that States have a vital constitutional position in the abortion debate.”[34] Additionally, Justice Kennedy accused the majority of “fail[ing] to acknowledge substantial authority allowing the State to take sides in a medical debate, even when fundamental liberty interests are at stake.”[35] To bolster this claim, Justice Kennedy cites the Court’s prior decision in Kansas v. Hendricks, where a man was convicted for refusing to receive the small pox vaccine.[36] In Hendricks, the Court ruled that disagreements among medical professionals “do not tie the State’s hands in setting the bounds of…laws. In fact, it is precisely where such a disagreement exists that the legislatures have been afforded the greatest latitude.”[37]

Justice Kennedy went on to argue that the Court was ignoring “substantial medical and ethical opinion[s]”[38] regarding this procedure, “which, in the State’s reasonable determination, might cause the medical profession or society as a whole to become insensitive, even disdainful, to life, including life in the human fetus.”[39]

Justice Scalia also wrote a scathing dissent in Stenberg, in which he expressed his hope that “one day, Stenberg will be assigned its rightful place in the history of this Court’s jurisprudence beside Korematsu and Dred Scott.”[40]

C. Gonzales v. Carhart

Fortunately for Justice Scalia, he did not have to wait very long. In response to Stenberg, Congress held fact finding hearings on Partial-Birth Abortion, and eventually passed the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban of 2003.[41] The factual findings Congress used to support this Act included, among others, that:

  • A moral, medical, and ethical consensus exists that the practice of performing a partial-birth abortion…is a gruesome and inhumane procedure that is never medically necessary and should be prohibited.
  • [Partial-Birth Abortion is] unnecessary to preserve the health of the mother, [and] in fact poses serious risks to the long-term health of women and in some circumstances, their lives.
  • A prominent medical association has concluded that partial-birth abortion is ‘not an accepted medical practice’…The association has further noted that partial-birth abortion is broadly disfavored by both medical experts and the public, is ‘ethically wrong,’ and ‘is never the only appropriate procedure’.
  • It is a medical fact…that unborn infants at this stage can feel pain when subjected to painful stimuli and that their perception of this pain is even more intense than that of newborn infants and older children when subjected to the same stimuli. Thus, during a partial-birth abortion procedure, the child will fully experience the pain associated with piercing his or her skull and sucking out his or her brain.
  • In light of this overwhelming evidence, Congress and the States have a compelling interest in prohibiting partial-birth abortions. In addition to promoting maternal health, such a prohibition will draw a bright line that clearly distinguishes abortion and infanticide, that preserves the integrity of the medical profession, and promotes respect for human life.[42]

 

Congress, hoping to avoid the impermissibly broad reading the Court used to strike down Nebraska’s Partial-Birth Abortion Ban, carefully crafted the descriptive language of the procedure. However, as seen in the Congressional findings listed above, Congress adamantly stuck by their belief that Partial-Birth Abortion was never medically necessary, and as such, did not include any language regarding a health exception to the ban.

Before it could even be signed into law by President George W. Bush, the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban of 2003 was challenged by abortionist Leroy Carhart, who had previously been the victor in Stenberg The resulting case, Gonzales v. Carhart, Court concluded that the legitimacy of the government’s interests in banning partial-birth abortions disproved the notion that the ban had the impermissible purpose of placing a “substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion.”[43]

Justice Kennedy once again wielded his pen in defense of State’s interests, composing the majority opinion of the Court. Justice Kennedy reasoned that the “central premise of [Casey]” was “that the government has a legitimate and substantial interest in preserving and promoting fetal life.”[44] In seeking to balance “the State’s interest in promoting respect for human life at all stages in the pregnancy,”[45] and a woman’s right to choose abortion, the Court ruled that the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban advanced a legitimate legislative purpose by “express[ing] respect for the dignity of human life,”[46] by promoting the state’s interest in “protecting the ethics and integrity of the medical profession,” and by preventing the “further coarsen[ing] [of] society to the humanity of…all vulnerable and innocent human life.”[47]

In finding that the Act’s lack of a health exception did not impose an “undue burden,” the Court considered the medical findings Congress relied upon to justify the Act.[48] This gave Justice Kennedy the chance to reiterate his arguments from his previous dissent in Stenberg, now held by the majority in Gonzales, regarding the right of a state to take sides in medical debates, ruling once and for that, “[m]edical uncertainty does not foreclose the exercise of legislative power in the abortion context any more than it does in other contexts.”[49]

The dissent in Gonzales harshly criticized the majority decision as, “blur[ring] the line, firmly drawn in Casey, between pre-viability and post-viability abortions.”[50]  Outside critics of the Court’s decision have gone even further, claiming that the fact that the ban applied both pre- and post-viability constituted “a direct violation of Roe’s bright line rule,” and that the Court’s decision to uphold it “demonstrated that the fixed point of viability can be bypassed.”[51]


[1] See e.g., Poe v. Gerstein, 517 F.2d 787, 789 (5th Cir. 1975); Friendship Medical Center v. Chicago Board of Health, 505 F.2d 1141, 1148 (7th Cir. 1974); Word v. Poelker, 495 F.2d 1349 (8th Cir. 1974).

[2] Connecticut v. Menillo, 423 U.S. 9, 10 (1975).

[3] Planned Parenthood v. Danforth, 428 U.S. 52 (1976).

[4] Bellotti v. Baird, 428 U.S. 132 (1976).

[5] Harris v. McRae, 448 U.S. 297 (1980).

[6] City of Akron v Akron Center for Reproductive Health, Inc., 462 U.S. 416 (1983).

[7]Thornburg v. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, 476 U.S. 747 (1986).

[8] Id., at 772.

[9] Rust v. Sullivan, 500 U.S. 173 (1991).

[10] Thornburg, 476 U.S. at 772.

[11] Bellotti, 443 U.S. at 640; Harris, 448 U.S. at 235.

[12] Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992).

[13] Id., at 846.

[14] Id., at 867.

[15] Id., at 865.

[16] Id., at 856.

[17] Id., at 998 (Scalia, J., dissenting).

[18] Id., at 956-7 (Rehnquist, C. J., dissenting).

[19] Id., at 851.

[20] Id., at 877.

[21] Id.

[22] See generally, Id.

[23] Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Remarks to Baton Rouge Federalist Society (October 11, 2013).

[24] Casey, 505 U.S. at 870.

[25] Id.

[26] Id., at 860 (23 weeks LMP).

[27] Id., at 876.

[28] Id.

[29] Id., at 944.

[30] Stenberg v. Carhart, 530 U.S. 914 (2000).

[31] Id., at 959-60.

[32] Stenberg, 530 U.S. 914.

[33] Id., at 964.

[34] Id., at 963.

[35] Id., at 970.

[36] Kansas v. Hendricks, 521 U.S. 346 (1997).

[37] Id., at 360.

[38] Stenberg, 530 U.S at 797.

[39] Id., at 961.

[40] Id., at 953; Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 (1944) (Upholding the constitutionality of the military imprisonment of thousands of American citizens of Japanese descent , in internment camps during World War II); Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857)(Holding  that an African American slave is not a “person” under the U.S. Constitution; and was therefore the property of the slave owner).

[41] Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003, 18 U.S.C. § 1531 (2004).

[42] See 18 U.S.C. § 1531 (note following) (congressional findings for Pub. L. No. 108-105, §2, Nov. 5, 2003, 117 Stat. 1201).

[43] Gonzales, 550 U.S. at 160.

[44] Id., at 157.

[45] Id., at 163 (emphasis added).

[46] Id., at 157.

[47] Id.

[48] Id., at 165.

[49] Id., at 164.

[50] Id. at 186.

[51] Katia Desrouleaux, Banning Partial-Birth Abortion at All CostsGonzales v. Carhart: Three Decades of Supreme Court Precedent “Down the Drain”, 35 S.U. L. Rev. 543, 553 (2008); Jason Pill, Constitutional Law: Drawing A New Critical Line Between the State’s Competing Interests in Abortion Regulation to Comport with Social Palpability Gonazales v. Carhart, 127 S. Ct. 1610 (2007), 19 U. Fla. J.L. & Pub. Pol’y 369, 378 (2008).

The Viability of Roe: Introduction

Few issues in American history have been a divisive as that of abortion. Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v Wade, the issue has not gone away, but has only grown more public and more fractured over time. Both proponents and opponents of abortion have been severely critical of the Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, in fact, between 1973 and 2003, approximately 330 constitutional amendments regarding abortion were introduced in the United States Congress[1], and every year hundreds of bills are passed at the local and state level challenging its core holding- that women have a right to terminate their pregnancies through abortion. This summer, our nation was reminded once again, of how deep the division on this issue goes, as thousands of abortions supporters and opponents converged on Austin, Texas. Clad in orange and blue, men and women came in droves, to voice their opinion on a deeply important issue in today’s culture- what are the respective legal rights of preborn children and the mothers that carry them? This series of blog posts will attempt to answer that question.

Here is a brief synopsis of where I hope to go with this series:

  • Part 1 will briefly outline the decision in Roe, and will address many of the misconceptions regarding the case.
  • Part 2 will look at the subsequent case law on abortion, from Roe through the Carhart cases.
  • Part 3 will look at the historical inaccuracies on which Roe was based.
  • Part 4 looks at the Court’s analysis of the legal concept of personhood.
  • Part 5 looks at “health” exception in Roe (and subsequent cases) and whether the data supports abortion as beneficial for women’s health.
  • Part 6 proposes a new framework for considering the question of abortion and concludes by calling for the overturning of Roe v. Wade, and a declaration of protection for preborn humans.

[1] See the full list provided by the National Committee for a Human Life Amendment at http://www.nchla.org/issues.asp?ID=46.

A (very) Brief Critique of Roe v Wade

 

 

This week we finally got the the one case that convinced me to go to law school in the first place: Roe v Wade.

I went up to my Con Law professor after class on Monday and explained to him that our next class would be covering an issue that I feel very strongly about, abortion. I volunteered to voice the side of life, and he agreed to allow me to defend my beliefs.

I am both overjoyed and humbled that I was given this opportunity. While it may not be for points, I could help change the mind of a fellow student, that maybe that student will argue it before the Supreme Court, or maybe they’ll be the judge overturning it, or maybe they’ll just remember my words when they or someone they love is faced with an unplanned pregnancy.

So, here is my very brief critique that I gave in class this morning at LSU Law