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.*****

Protect LA Women

hb388 senate Health and Welfare

BDF Attorney and HB388 drafter, Dorinda Bordlee, State Senator Elbert Guillory, and Me on the Senate Floor just before HB388 was passed

BDF Attorney and HB388 drafter, Dorinda Bordlee, State Senator Elbert Guillory, and Me on the Senate Floor just before HB388 was passed

Testimony today on HB388 in the Senate Health & Welfare Committee:

My name is Deanna, and I am here to speak in support of HB388. I am a resident of Baton Rouge, a law student at LSU, and I am here today on behalf of Law Students for Life of America- a national organization of future lawyers dedicated to protecting life.
Ladies and Gentlemen of the Committee, you will hear today that these regulations are medically unnecessary, but this simply isn’t true. The proposed regulations are common sense regulations that would protect the health of women who undergo abortion procedures in Louisiana. These regulations are needed in Louisiana- and this need is evidenced by the history of violations and complaints against Louisiana’s abortion clinics.
Causeway Medical Clinic, in Metairie, has been cited for violations 14 times since 2007. These violations include failing to determine viability of the child, not monitoring patient’s vital signs during the abortion procedure, unsanitary conditions, expired medications and supplies being used, and failing to ensure parental consent for a minor’s abortion.
Bossier City Medical Clinic in Bossier City has been cited for violations 8 times since 2004, including failing to obtain a Controlled Dangerous Substances license and DEA registration, not monitoring patient’s vital signs after being given narcotics, and unsanitary conditions.
Women’s Health Care Center in New Orleans has been cited for violations 12 times since 2004, including failing to report abortions as required by law, failure to ensure informed consent, missing and incorrect records, and failing to inspect equipment annually.
Hope Medical Clinic, in Shreveport, has been cited 13 times since 2004, including reusing single use equipment, allowing noncertified individuals to administer narcotics, failure to monitor patient’s vital signs after being given narcotics, failing to meet reporting requirements under the law, improper storage of narcotics, failure to maintain sterile environment, and failure to ensure informed consent.
The Delta Clinic, in Baton Rouge, has a history of botched abortions, unsanitary conditions, and has been cited for violations 18 times since 2006. Additionally, the Delta Clinic previously employed a woman by the name of Eileen O’Neill, who after leaving the Delta Clinic, surrendered her medical license due to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Ms. O’Neill went on to practice medicine without a license, in the Philadelphia abortion clinic of Kermit Gosnell, who was convicted of murdering innocent children who were born as a result of botched abortions, and causing the death of and countless injuries to, the women who visited his clinic.
The women of Louisiana deserve to be protected when they walk into an abortion clinic, and this regulation would do much to assure their safety.
From a legal standpoint, this regulation will not violate the standards set up by the Supreme Court. In the landmark case, Planned Parenthood v Casey, the Supreme Court noted that “not all burdens on the right to decide whether to terminate a pregnancy will be undue,” and acknowledged that a state’s interests in protecting unborn life, in preserving the integrity of the medical profession, preventing the coarsening of society’s moral sense, and promoting respect for human life more generally, are strong enough to warrant restrictions prior to viability, even if those regulations might make abortion more difficult or expensive to obtain. The 5th Circ. Recently upheld similar regulations in TX.
Requiring doctors to obtain admitting privileges at local hospitals would serve to protect the health and safety of Louisiana women, and since they do not violate the principles the Supreme Court follows in determining whether an abortion regulation is an “undue burden”, I ask you to support this bill.

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HB 388, HB 305, and HB 1262 are the work of the amazing Bioethics Defense Fund! It’s been an honor to work with them on these important pieces of legislation! Learn more about this great pro-life group and their groundbreaking work at their website: http://www.bdfund.org/

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.