Appellate Advocacy Blog

Editor: Tessa L. Dysart
The University of Arizona
James E. Rogers College of Law

Sunday, May 23, 2021

The Supreme Court, Abortion, and the Future of Roe v. Wade

Last week, the United States Supreme Court agreed to review the constitutionality of a Mississippi law that prohibits most abortions after fifteen weeks.[1] This case, Jackson Women's Health Organization v. Dobbs, represents yet another episode in the seemingly never-ending abortion saga. Simply put, a state enacts legislation striving to restrict the right to abortion and the Court renders a divisive decision, often by a 5-4 vote along ideological lines, that fails to resolve and clarify permanently the scope of the abortion right. The Court’s incremental, case-by-case jurisprudence has invited confusion and unpredictability into abortion jurisprudence and incentivized states to continue testing the viability of Roe v. Wade, which held that the judicially-created right to privacy under the Fourteenth Amendment encompassed a right to abortion.[2]

So, here we go again.

Another divisive abortion decision is likely and whatever the Court decides, its decision will likely be viewed as political and compromise the Court’s institutional legitimacy.

This constitutional mess can be traced to Roe v. Wade and Griswold v. Connecticut, in which the Court manipulated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause to create unenumerated rights that no reasonable reading of the text could support.[3] In Griswold, the Court held that the Due Process Clause, along with other provisions in the Bill of Rights, contained invisible “penumbras … formed by emanations from those guarantees that give them life and substance.”[4] Within these judicially-invented “penumbras,” the Court gave itself the power to discover unenumerated “rights” out of thin air, including the right to privacy, that could not possibly be found in or inferred from the text.  Relying in substantial part on Griswold, the Court in Roe held that the right to privacy encompassed the right to terminate a pregnancy.[5]

Regardless of one’s policy views on abortion, liberal and constitutional scholars largely agree that Roe was constitutionally indefensible. Harvard Law School Professor Laurence Tribe, for example, stated that “behind its own verbal smokescreen, the substantive judgment on which it [Roe] rests is nowhere to be found.”[6] The late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg described Roe as “heavy-handed judicial activism,” and Edward Lazarus, a former clerk to Justice Harry Blackmun (who drafted the majority opinion), stated that “as a matter of constitutional interpretation ... if you administer truth serum … [most scholars] will tell you it is constitutionally indefensible.”[7] These scholars are correct – Roe was one of the worst decisions of the twentieth century.

Importantly, in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, the Court had the opportunity to overturn Roe and return the abortion question to the states. Instead, the Court made the problem worse.[8] In a 5-4 decision, the Court upheld the “central holding” of Roe but overturned Roe’s trimester approach, which provided that, absent a compelling interest, states could not restrict a woman’s right to access abortion services during the first two trimesters, or pre-viability phase, which lasts approximately twenty-four weeks.[9] In the third trimester, the states had the authority to prohibit abortion except where necessary to protect the life or health of the mother.[10] In Planned Parenthood, however, the Court rejected the trimester approach; instead, the Court held that abortion restrictions during the pre-viability phase that imposed a “substantial burden” on the right to access abortion services were unconstitutional.[11]

Planned Parenthood was equally, if not more, constitutionally indefensible than Roe and it thrust the right to abortion into legal purgatory. After all, what precisely constitutes a “substantial burden” on the right to access abortion? And what criteria should be used to determine whether a burden is substantial? The Court had no answer.

But the states opposing abortion did.  Recognizing the ambiguity that Planned Parenthood created, these states have repeatedly enacted legislation that seeks to restrict abortion rights and thus rendered the scope of abortion rights unclear and uncertain. To make matters worse, the Court has evaluated these laws on a case-by-case basis and, in divisive and muddled opinions, failed to resolve the abortion question. Recently, for example, in Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstadt and June Medical Services v. Russo, the Court invalidated – for good reason – laws requiring abortion providers to obtain hospital admitting privileges.[12]

The problem is that the Court, in these and other abortion decisions, has failed to definitively clarify the nature and scope of the abortion right, thus perpetuating a never-ending saga in which some states continue, in various ways, to eviscerate the abortion right. Instead of deciding each case narrowly – and based on an arguably subjective application of the undue burden standard – the Court should have either: (1) overturned Roe and returned the abortion issue to the states; or (2) held that women have an unfettered right to abortion before viability. Whatever one’s views on abortion, this would have resolved the constitutional question and precluded the seemingly never-ending litigation that Roe and its progeny have engendered. In short, Roe was a terrible decision and Planned Parenthood only compounded the constitutional damage that Roe inflicted. By way of analogy, when a person lies, the best course of action is to admit and own up to the lie rather than try to cover it up with additional lies. The Court’s abortion jurisprudence reflects the latter.

As such, the Court once again finds itself in a constitutional quagmire, the result of which will surely divide the country and risk compromising the Court’s institutional legitimacy. But the Court has no one but itself to blame. It created – and exacerbated – the constitutional fictions known as “penumbras” and substantive due process.  

Of course, one’s views on whether women should have a right to abortion are irrelevant. Most polls suggest that a majority of citizens support at least a limited right to abortion. And the reasons are understandable. But the abortion issue should have always been resolved by state legislatures, not nine unelected and life-tenured judges. The Court should have never involved itself in the abortion debate.

Ultimately, what should the Court do in Jackson Women's Health Organization? It should end this constitutional charade. In so doing, the Court should hold that, although Roe was constitutionally indefensible, it should not be overruled. For nearly fifty years, women have relied on Roe to make decisions, in conjunction with their health care providers, regarding whether to terminate a pregnancy. Put simply, Roe is entrenched in the public consciousness and stare decisis counsels in favor of reluctantly upholding Roe despite its obvious flaws. Furthermore, the Court should return to the trimester framework and hold that states may not restrict abortion access prior to viability.

That will end the inquiry and the uncertainty.

But don’t count on it. The most likely result will be a decision, engineered by Chief Justice John Roberts – who has become the Court’s most political actor – that confuses, rather than clarifies, abortion jurisprudence. That is the sad reality of the U.S. Supreme Court. Despite Chief Justice Roberts’s assertions to the contrary, the Court is unquestionably political.

Most importantly, in the future, the Court should hold that the penumbras upon which Griswold and Roe are predicated no longer exist. Had the Court adhered to an originalist framework, we would never be in this mess.

Hopefully, the Court will learn its lesson. There is ample reason, however, to be skeptical.


[1] Jackson Women's Health Organization v. Dobbs, No. 19-1392 (October Term, 2021).

[2] 410 U.S. 113 (1973).

[3] Id; 381 U.S. 479 (1965).

[4] Id. at 484.

[5] 410 U.S. 113.

[6] Timothy P. Carney, The Pervading Dishonesty of Roe v. Wade (Jan. 23, 2012), available at: The pervading dishonesty of Roe v. Wade | Washington Examiner

[7] Id.

[8] 505 U.S. 833 (1992).

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12]  136 S. Ct. 2292 (2016); 2020 WL 3492640.

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