A Bold But Risky Step on Abortion

The State of Alabama has taken a bold step, enacting a law that would ban virtually all abortions. The new law has generated a great deal of controversy, as one might expect. Abortion is becoming a “zero sum” issue in our political culture – with the choice being made to look as if it is between either maximum protection for the unborn child or unlimited license for a woman to have an abortion.

Pro-lifers are hoping that this new law may be the vehicle for the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade. Other laws have also been passed recently and may reach the Court, like those banning abortion after a fetal heartbeat can be detected (about 7 weeks) or after an unborn child can feel pain (about 20 weeks).

Based on the current composition of the Supreme Court, I’m dubious that they are ready to overturnRoe. There’s only one Justice (Thomas) who has indicated that he would do so, and there are at least four (Kagen, Breyer, Ginsburg and Sotomayor) who certainly will not. We don’t have any real idea how the two newest Justices (Kavanagh and Gorsuch) will approach the issue, nor is it by any means clear that Chief Justice Roberts or Justice Alito will vote to overturn Roe.

So it’s possible, but in my view it’s a long shot. There’s also a major risk that the Court could make the law even worse than it currently is. This involves some legal “inside baseball” considerations, so let me explain.

Right now, the Court’s abortion rulings are based on the unenumerated (i.e., not specifically listed in the Constitution) “right to privacy” that is protected under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment (“…nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”). This approach to constitutional law, which is called “substantive due process”, is how the Supreme Court in Roe invented the right to an abortion.

The origin of these unenumerated rights is hotly contested among legal scholars. We would point to their origin in natural law/natural rights, which were understood in the English legal tradition as coming from God, and which are inherent in the nature of the human person and society (as the Declaration of Independence put it, they’re “inalienable”). In this view, the state doesn’t create these rights, but is instead bound to recognize and protect them. Ironically, the “substantive due process” principle that led to Roe is also a kind of natural law argument, but it is a distorted one based on a twisted understanding of human nature and society, since it holds that personal autonomy is the highest value.

Regardless of where these rights come from, the key legal battle is over what standard the courts will use to evaluate any law that has an effect on them. In the case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Court set out the test for whether an abortion regulation would violate that right. The key rule is that prior to fetal viability, there can be no prohibition of abortion, and any regulation will be struck down if it imposes an undue burden on the woman’s ability to obtain an abortion. The Court said that this standard evaluates whether the regulation has “the effect of placing a substantial obstacle in the path of a woman’s choice”. In a later case, the Court read this amorphous “undue burden” standard so broadly that it would appear to endanger virtually any regulation ( Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt).

As problematic as the “undue burden” standard may be, it still permits pro-lifers to argue for the validity of a whole host of abortion regulations. States have passed many such bills, including requiring hospital admitting privileges for abortion doctors, health and safety regulations, outlawing particularly cruel methods of abortion, and banning discrimination against unborn babies with disabilities. All of these are step-by-step methods to enact real protections and to advance a greater social acceptance of the dignity of human life.

In my view, passing laws that outright prohibit all or most abortions is risky as being “too fast, too soon”, given our current social and legal attitudes and values. The danger is that the Court may decide (as Justice Ginsburg has suggested, and as the plurality opinion in Casey implied) that the proper place for the protection of “reproductive liberty” is under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment (“… nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws”). The argument is that women cannot participate equally in society unless they have the ability to control their reproductive systems, and regulations of abortion limit that ability and thus treat them unequally under the law.

That would be a legal disaster. The Court has already held that sex discrimination is subject to “intermediate scrutiny” under the Equal Protection Clause. This means that any regulation would have to satisfy a test of whether there is an “important state interest” and the regulation is “substantially related” to that interest. In fact, the Court has said that the state must give an “exceedingly persuasive justification” for any classification based on sex. The courts have been very tough in applying that standard in sex/gender discrimination cases, particularly recently in the gender identity cases. I doubt that many abortion regulations would survive this test.

Even worse, going to the Equal Protection Clause would invite the Court to decide that “reproductive liberty” is a “fundamental right”. That means that the courts will apply an extremely stringent “strict scrutiny” standard that requires proof of a “compelling government interest” and that the law be narrowly tailored to meet that interest. In practice, a strict scrutiny standard is a death sentence to regulations.

We have to recognize that lower federal courts and many state courts are still hostile to us despite many good appointments by the current President. The legal community and academia have been deeply corrupted by the flawed jurisprudence and politics of “reproductive rights”. Convincing courts to uproot the poisoned doctrines of Roe and Casey will be a very difficult task, and would create a political firestorm.

The goal of protecting every human life is shared by every pro-lifer. But politics is always an area for prudence, meaning that we must be careful in the way we advance our values so as not to make things worse, even as we try to make them better.

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