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Decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court rarely attract much public interest. One news cycle and a few days' discussion in the op-ed section is probably the norm for even the most important and sweeping decisions. The average person probably has to cast back to a high school history course to recall the names of even a few landmark cases other thanMiranda v. Arizona (known mainly from the scripts of popular police shows). But one Supreme Court decision eclipses all others in the past century. Far from being forgotten, in the thirty years since Roe v. Wade announced that the "constitutional" right to privacy encompasses a woman's decision to abort her child, its fame (or infamy) just keeps growing.
For many Americans, Roe is a symptom of and catalyst for a continuing decline in American culture and institutions. It represents a tragic failure of the government, an abdication of its duty to defend the vulnerable and innocent. The judicially-created regime permitting abortion on request throughout pregnancy has eroded principles on which this nation was founded – the sanctity of life, the equal dignity of all, and impartial justice. Even the fundamental principle of self-government is shaken when seven unelected judges can overturn the will of the people expressed in the laws of 50 states. And how does one begin to assess the meaning and impact of destroying over 40 million children?
Many other Americans, less attuned to public policy matters, hold a very different view of Roe v. Wade. They see Roe as being immutable, permanent, "settled law." "Abortion is a constitutional right." End of discussion. In thirty years, the Roe abortion license has been elevated by some to the stature of "freedom of speech," "trial by jury" and other bedrock American principles.It is not surprising that many people share this distorted view of Roe v. Wade. For thirty years, the abortion industry has refined and perfected this message. Advocates like Planned Parenthood's president, Gloria Feldt, proclaim (with no apparent irony): "It's been 30 years since women were guaranteed the basic human right to make their own childbearing choices – a right as intrinsic as the right to breathe and to walk, to work and to think, to speak our truths, to thrive, to learn, and to love."
Roe has also become a lodestar for abortion advocates and the politicians who support their agenda. Any event or policy affecting a child before or near birth is minutely scrutinized for its potential to "undermine Roe v. Wade." Anything (and anyone) that threatens the shaky "constitutionality" of Roe must be stopped. For example, state laws which punish violent attacks on unborn children and their mothers are denounced as schemes "designed to chip away at the constitutional rights of women." Even expanding eligibility under the State Children's Health Insurance Program to provide prenatal care to children from conception onward is attacked as "a guerilla attack on abortion rights."2
Allegiance to Roe has become the sine qua non for presidential aspirants of one political party and a litmus test used by many politicians in evaluating judicial nominees. Senate filibusters are being used to block confirmation votes on nominees. Individuals who have received the American Bar Association's highest recommendation based on their knowledge of law, their integrity and judicial temperament are blocked chiefly because abortion lobbyists suspect they are not sufficiently deferential to Roe v. Wade.
Already two presidential candidates seeking election in 2004 have announced that, if elected, they would appoint no one to the Supreme Court "if they don't commit to supporting Roe v. Wade and a woman's right to choose." This, too, is an unprecedented admission. They strain to explain why their position does not constitute a single issue "litmus test" for judicial appointees: "The focus is on the constitutional right that Roe established in America," says one. "I want jurists to agree, to swear to uphold the Constitution." Are abortion and the Constitution really synonymous?
Many Americans, including members of Congress, believe or act as if Roe v. Wade and the U.S. Constitution have equal authority. They are wrong, both as to Roe's place in American constitutional law and as to the duty of citizens and judges to follow it unquestioningly. Few decisions in the history of the Supreme Court have cried out so loudly for reversal, on both moral and legal grounds. And rarely has any decision been so fraught with conspicuous errors of law, fact and reasoning as the majority opinion in Roe.
This article is addressed to all who may think that Roe deserves a measure of deference as a landmark of constitutional law (notwithstanding its immoral outcome). Not so! Legally speaking, Roe is an abomination, and an embarrassment to lawyers and public officials who feel compelled to defend it.
As a matter of constitutional interpretation and judicial method, Roe borders on the indefensible. I say this as someone utterly committed to the right to choose, as someone who believes such a right has grounding elsewhere in the Constitution instead of where Roe placed it, and as someone who loved Roe's author like a grandfather. . . . .
What, exactly, is the problem with Roe? The problem, I believe, is that it has little connection to the Constitutional right it purportedly interpreted. A constitutional right to privacy broad enough to include abortion has no meaningful foundation in constitutional text, history, or precedent. ...
The proof of Roe's failings comes not from the writings of those unsympathetic to women's rights, but from the decision itself and the friends who have tried to sustain it. Justice Blackmun's opinion provides essentially no reasoning in support of its holding. And in the almost 30 years since Roe's announcement, no one has produced a convincing defense of Roe on its own terms.7
Under the legal system established by the U.S. Constitution, the power to make laws is vested in Congress and retained by state legislatures. It is not the role of the Supreme Court to substitute the policy preferences of its members for those expressed in laws enacted by the people's elected representatives. The role of the judiciary in constitutional review is to determine if the law being challenged infringes on a constitutionally protected right.
Justice O'Connor reiterates this principle, quoting Chief Justice Warren Burger:
Irrespective of what we may believe is wise or prudent policy in this difficult area, "the Constitution does not constitute us as 'Platonic Guardians' nor does it vest in this Court the authority to strike down laws because they do not meet our standards of desirable social policy, 'wisdom,' or 'common sense.'"8
In Roe v. Wade and its companion case, Doe v. Bolton, however, the Court struck down criminal laws of Texas and Georgia which outlawed certain abortions by finding that these laws (and those of the other 48 states) violated a "right of privacy" that "is broad enough to encompass a woman's decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy." Such a right is nowhere mentioned in the Constitution nor derivable from values embodied therein.
In his dissenting opinion in Doe v. Bolton, Justice Byron White, joined by Justice William Rehnquist, wrote:
I find nothing in the language or history of the Constitution to support the Court's judgment. The Court simply fashions and announces a new constitutional right for pregnant mothers ... and, with scarcely any reason or authority for its action, invests that right with sufficient substance to override most existing state abortion statutes. The upshot is that the people and the legislatures of the 50 states are constitutionally disentitled to weigh the relative importance of the continued existence and development of the fetus, on the one hand, against a spectrum of possible impacts on the mother, on the other hand. As an exercise of raw judicial power, the Court perhaps has authority to do what it does today; but, in my view, its judgment is an improvident and extravagant exercise of the power of judicial review that the Constitution extends to this Court.
The apparent purpose of the Roe opinion's long historical excursion is to create the impression that abortion had been widely practiced and unpunished until the appearance of restrictive laws in the prudishly Victorian 19th century. One example is adequate to show how distorted is Justice Harry Blackmun's rendition of history. He must overcome a huge hurdle in the person of Hippocrates, the "Father of Medicine," and his famous Oath which has guided medical ethics for over 2,000 years. The Oath provides in part: "I will give no deadly medicine to anyone if asked, nor suggest any such counsel; and in like manner I will not give to a woman a pessary to produce abortion."9 This enduring standard was followed until the Roe era and is reflected in Declarations of the World Medical Association through 1968: "I will maintain the utmost respect for human life, from the time of conception. ..."10 But Justice Blackmun dismisses this universal, unbroken ethical tradition as nothing more than the manifesto of a fringe Greek sect, the Pythagoreans, to which Hippocrates is alleged to have belonged!
The Court's strained analysis and conclusion – "it now appears doubtful that abortion was ever firmly established as a common-law crime even with respect to the destruction of a quick fetus" – are rejected by many legal scholars.11
William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-1769), an exhaustive and definitive discussion of English common law as it was adopted by the United States shows that the lives of unborn children were valued and protected, even if their beginning point was still thought to be "quickening" rather than conception:
Life is the immediate gift of God, a right inherent by nature in every individual; and it begins in contemplation of law as soon as the infant is able to stir in the mother's womb. For if a woman is quick with child, and by a potion, or otherwise, killeth it in her womb ... this, though not murder, was by the ancient law homicide or manslaughter. But at present it is not looked upon in quite so atrocious a light, though it remains a very heinous misdemeanor.12
Until well into the 19th century, it was assumed that a child's life may not begin – and certainly could not be proven to have begun to satisfy criminal evidentiary standards – prior to the time her movements were felt by the mother ("quickening"), at approximately 16-18 weeks' gestation. The Roe Court looks at the distinction in common law concerning abortions attempted before or after "quickening," and wrongly infers that the law allowed women great latitude to abort their children in the early months of pregnancy. This is like saying people had a general right to spread computer viruses before such acts were criminally prosecuted.
In the 19th century, in virtually every state and territory, laws were enacted to define abortion as a crime throughout pregnancy. They contained only narrow exceptions, generally permitting abortion only if necessary to preserve the mother's life. The primary reason for stricter abortion laws, according to their legislative history, was to afford greater protection to unborn children. This reflected a heightened appreciation of prenatal life based on new medical knowledge. It is significant that the medical profession spearheaded efforts to afford greater protection to unborn lives than had been recognized under the common law's archaic "quickening" distinction.
The existence of such laws, and their clear purpose of protecting the unborn, rebuts the Court's claim that abortion has always been considered a liberty enjoyed by women. These laws show broad acceptance of the view that the life of an unborn child is valuable and should be protected unless the mother's life is at risk. In that case, of course, both mother and child were likely to perish, given the primitive care then available for infants born prematurely.
How does the Court get around the impressive body of laws giving clear effect to the state's interest in protecting unborn lives? It attempts to devalue them by ascribing a completely different purpose: the desire to protect the mother's life and health from a risky surgical procedure. Applying the maxim "if the reason for a law has ceased to exist, the law no longer serves any purpose," the Court declares that abortion is now "safer than childbirth." Therefore, laws banning abortion have outlived their purpose.
Roe v. Wade locates a pregnant woman's "constitutional" right of privacy to decide whether or not to abort her child either "in the Fourteenth Amendment's concept of personal liberty ..., as we feel it is, or ... in the Ninth Amendment's reservation of rights to the people."
The Court does not even make a pretense of examining the intent of the drafters of the Fourteenth Amendment, to determine if it was meant to protect a privacy interest in abortion. Clearly it was not. The Fourteenth Amendment was not intended to create any new rights, but to secure to all persons, notably including freed slaves and their descendants, the rights and liberties already guaranteed by the Constitution.
Several rhetorical devices are used to mask this absence of constitutional grounding. The Court mentions several specifically enumerated rights which concern an aspect of privacy, for example, the Fourth Amendment's "right of the people to be secure in their houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." However, the Court fails to connect these to the newly found "right" to abortion, because no logical connection exists.
Justice Blackmun attempts to graft abortion onto the line of decisions recognizing privacy/liberty rights in the following spheres: marriage (Loving v. Virginia, striking down a ban on interracial marriage); childrearing (Meyer v. Nebraska and Pierce v. Society of Sisters, upholding parental decision-making regarding their children's education); procreation (Skinner v. Oklahoma, finding unconstitutional a state law mandating sterilization of inmates found guilty of certain crimes); and contraceptive use by a married couple (Griswold v. Connecticut). Certainly marriage, and building and raising a family are fundamental aspects of human life that predate human laws and nations. They are implicit in the concept of liberty and the pursuit of happiness, though even these rights are subject to state limitation, such as laws against bigamy, incest, and child abuse and neglect.
But abortion does not fit neatly among these spheres of privacy. It negates them. Abortion is not akin to childrearing; it's child destruction. A pregnant woman's right to abort nullifies the right to procreate upheld in "Skinner." He no longer has a right to bring children into the world, but only a right to fertilize an ovum, which his mate can then destroy without his knowledge or consent. The fear of government intruding into the marital bedroom by searching for evidence of contraceptive use drove the Griswold Court to find a privacy right for couples to use contraception in the "penumbras, formed by emanations from" various guarantees in the Bill of Rights. But however closely abortion and contraception may be linked in purpose and effect, they are worlds apart in terms of privacy. Abortions do not take place in the sacred precincts of marital bedrooms, preventing them does not require investigation of private sexual behavior, and they involve personnel other than the spouses.A "privacy right" large enough to encompass abortion could also be applied to virtually any conduct performed outside the public view, including child abuse, possession of pornography or using illicit drugs. The liberty interest to be protected from state regulation is never really defined in Roe. Instead the Court describes at some length the hardships some women face, not from pregnancy, but from raising children:
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 childcare. 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.
By this reasoning, one might argue that Roe's liberty encompasses ridding oneself of unwanted toddlers! Ordinarily, the defense of rights requires us to forgo lethal methods and use means likely to create the least harm to others. We may not, for example, surround our house and yard with a high voltage fence to deter trespassers. This principle is upended in the abortion context. Adoption, for example, would effectively eliminate all the "hardships" of raising "unwanted" children by non-lethal means.
Roe holds that in the first trimester of pregnancy, the mother's "privacy interest" in an abortion trumps state regulation. From the end of the first trimester to the child's "viability" – which the Court presumed to be no earlier than 26 weeks – the state can regulate abortion practice only in ways reasonably related to advancing themother's health. In the final trimester, the state – in the interest of protecting the "potential life" of the child – can regulate and even proscribe abortion, except where necessary to preserve the mother's "life or health." Health (see point 8 below) is the exception that swallows the rule.
Pre-decision memoranda among members of the Roe Court acknowledged the serious flaw in establishing arbitrary, rigid time frames. Justice Blackmun himself admitted it was arbitrary.14 A reply memorandum from Justice Potter Stewart stated:One of my concerns with your opinion as presently written is ... in its fixing of the end of the first trimester as the critical point for valid state action. ... I wonder about the desirability of the dicta being quite so inflexibly "legislative."My present inclination would be to allow the States more latitude to make policy judgments. ..."15
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