Appellate Advocacy Blog

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

Sunday, September 5, 2021

The Abortion Mess Continues

In the words of the late Justice Antonin Scalia, “[l[ike some ghoul in a late-night horror movie that repeatedly sits up in its grave and shuffles abroad, after being repeatedly killed and buried,” Roe v. Wade (and Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey) stalks the Fourteenth Amendment’s jurisprudence yet again, reflecting the constitutional mess that these decisions created.[1]

Specifically, in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Court will decide whether a Mississippi law, which bans abortions after the fifteenth week of pregnancy, violates the right, created in Roe and reaffirmed in Planned Parenthood, to obtain abortions before viability (which occurs at approximately twenty-four weeks of pregnancy).[2] By way of background, in Roe, the Court interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause to support a fundamental right to terminate a pregnancy in certain circumstances.[3] In so holding, the Court adopted a trimester framework that balanced a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy with a state’s right to regulate the abortion procedure. In the first trimester, women had an unfettered right to terminate a pregnancy.[4] In the second trimester, states could regulate abortion to protect a women’s health.[5] After the second trimester – when the fetus became viable – states could prohibit abortions except when necessary to protect the life or health of the mother.[6]

Scholars and judges of all political persuasions criticized the Court’s decision in Roe, arguing that the right to abortion could not be found anywhere in the Constitution’s text and certainly was not inferable from the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, which protects procedural, not substantive rights.[7] These scholars were correct: the abortion right in Roe was predicated in substantial part on and an outgrowth of the Court’s decision in Griswold v. Connecticut, where the Court held that the Constitution contains invisible “penumbras,” that are “formed by emanations from those guarantees [in the text] that give them life and substance.”[8] In other words, the Court could create whatever rights it wanted, regardless of whether the text supported creating those rights.

Two decades later, in Planned Parenthood, the Court made the problem worse. In a 5-4 decision, the Court upheld the central holding in Roe (the right to obtain abortions before viability) but rejected Roe’s trimester framework. In its place, the Court adopted the “undue burden,” test, which stated that before viability, states may not enact laws that impose a substantial burden on a woman’s right to access abortion services.[9] It is obvious why Planned Parenthood introduced instability and unpredictability into abortion jurisprudence. After all, what constitutes an “undue burden” on the right to obtain a pre-viability abortion? No one knew the answer. Perhaps it was located in Griswold’s penumbras, which only the Court could access and define.

Not surprisingly, in response to what many rightfully perceived as judicial overreach in Roe and constitutional ambiguity in Planned Parenthood, some states embarked on a decades-long and seemingly never-ending mission to eviscerate, if not effectively overturn, Roe through legislation that imposes various restrictions upon when and under what circumstances women can obtain abortions. For example, in Planned Parenthood, a Pennsylvania law required minors to obtain parental consent, and adult women to inform their spouses, before obtaining an abortion. The Court upheld the former provision and invalidated the latter.[10] In Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstadt and June Medical Services v. Russo, Texas and Louisiana, respectively, enacted laws requiring physicians to obtain hospital admitting privileges before providing abortion services.[11] In two 5-4 decisions, the Court invalidated both laws.[12] These cases are just a sample of the many instances in which states attempted to limit, directly or indirectly, access to abortion.[13]  

And in every case,  the Court declined the opportunity to clarify definitively the nature and scope of the abortion right, such as by unequivocally upholding or overruling Roe, or adopting categorical rules concerning when and under what circumstances women could access abortions. Instead, the Court applied the malleable “undue burden” test, which resulted in a case-by-case jurisprudence that led to uncertainty and often kept the abortion right hanging by a thread, dependent more on the current justices’ ideological predilections than on principled constitutional law. Simply put, the Court’s approach ensured that the abortion right would remain in constitutional purgatory, mired in uncertainty, and continuously under attack by states that viewed abortion as constitutionally unsupportable and morally indefensible.

Unfortunately, the saga continues.

In the latest installment of How to Overturn Roe While Acting Like You Are Not, the State of Mississippi has enacted a law that bans abortions after fifteen weeks – and thus bans a portion of previability abortions. Only this time, the plot doesn’t just involve Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, where the Court will decide whether Mississippi's law passes constitutional muster.  Rather, Texas has decided to make yet another appearance into the abortion sage by passing an unusually bizarre law that: (1) bans all abortions after six weeks; and (2) gives citizens, not the state, enforcement power by authorizing private causes of action against those who provide or assist in providing abortion services after six weeks.[14] This law is certainly unconstitutional; many women do not even know that they are pregnant at six weeks, thus rendering the six-week limit a substantial and unconstitutional burden on abortion access. Not surprisingly, in Whole Women’s Health v. Jackson, the Petitioner sought an order from the Court preliminarily enjoining the law's enforcement.[15]

You’d think that, based on Roe and Planned Parenthood, the Court would have granted the injunction.

Think again.

Last week, in a 5-4 decision, the Court declined to issue an injunction. [16] To be fair, the majority did not rule on the merits of Texas’s law. Rather, the Court held that the Petitioner did not meet the standard for obtaining a preliminary injunction because, among other things, there was no evidence that any private citizen intended to enforce the law, or that the Court had the authority to issue an injunction against state judges who were asked to decide the law's constitutionality.[17] The Court was careful to emphasize, however, that its decision was not “based on any conclusion about the constitutionality of Texas’s law.”[18]

Yeah, right.

The majority doesn’t live in a fantasy world. It knew that its decision would allow a law to go into effect that unquestionably violated Roe and Planned Parenthood, and effectively outlawed abortion for most women in Texas. As Justice Sotomayor explained in her dissent:

The Court’s order is stunning. Presented with an application to enjoin a flagrantly unconstitutional law engineered to prohibit women from exercising their constitutional rights and evade judicial scrutiny, a majority of Justices have opted to bury their heads in the sand. Last night, the Court silently acquiesced in a State’s enactment of a law that flouts nearly 50 years of federal precedents.[19]

Furthermore, as Justice Breyer noted in his dissent, the Court could have enjoined the law on the ground that a state “cannot delegate . . . a veto power [over the right to obtain an abortion] which the state itself is absolutely and totally prohibited from exercising during the first trimester of pregnancy.”[20] Ultimately, the Court’s refusal to issue the injunction in Whole Women’s Health v. Jackson suggests that five justices may be prepared to overturn Roe or, at the very least, severely restrict abortion rights.

For that and other reasons, Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization is perhaps the most important abortion case in years. Whatever the justices decide, they should ensure that the opinion ends the constitutional mess that is abortion jurisprudence, in which the abortion right has been plagued by uncertainty and the Court’s decisions characterized by anything by clarity.  The Court can do so by issuing a clear and categorical decision about whether abortion is a fundamental right and, if the answer is yes, clarifies definitively the scope of this right. The Court has several options, including:

  1. Overturn Roe and return the abortion issue to the states.
  2. Overturn Planned Parenthood but not Roe and return to the trimester framework.
  3. Overturn Planned Parenthood and Roe, but hold that the Equal Protection Clause supports the right to abortion.
  4. Uphold Planned Parenthood and Roe based on stare decisis.

The absolute worst result would be if the Court issued yet another fractured, 5-4 decision that invalidated or upheld the Mississippi law, but otherwise provided no clarity regarding the scope of the abortion right and the states’ power to restrict its exercise. The worst result would be if Chief Justice Roberts engaged in legal shenanigans yet again in a misguided to preserve the Court’s institutional legitimacy. The worst result would be if the Court issued a plurality opinion with multiple concurrences and dissents that made readers think that the Court just can’t – and perhaps never will – reach any agreement on how to address the constitutional mess that Roe created, and that Planned Parenthood exacerbated. Whatever happens, the abortion saga should be a lesson in what happens when courts ignore the Constitution and create rights out of thin air.

The time has come to bring the abortion soap opera to a conclusion and end the decades-old constitutional charade that Griswold, Roe, and Planned Parenthood created.  In other words, either kill the monster or allow it to forever terrorize constitutional law and lurk in the hidden penumbras, waiting to trap and possess unsuspecting justices in those penumbras.  

The Court’s abortion jurisprudence, however, suggests that the ending in the latest installment of How to Overturn Roe While Acting Like You Are Not will leave the audience wanting, just as in those 80s’ horror movies that ended with the killer seemingly dead, only to open an eye or move a body part before the screen fades out, signaling to the audience that yet another sequel is on the horizon. 

Stay tuned.

 

[1] Lamb’s Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School District, 508 U.S. 384 (1993) (Scalia, J., concurring)

[2] No. 19-392, available at: Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization - SCOTUSblog.

[3] 410 U.S. 113 (1973).

[4] See id.

[5] See id.

[6] See id.

[7] See, e.g., Meredith Heagney, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Offers Critique of Roe v. Wade During Law School Visit (May 15, 2013), available at: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Offers Critique of Roe v. Wade During Law School Visit | University of Chicago Law School (uchicago.edu).

[8] 381 U.S. 479 (1965) (brackets added).

[9] 505 U.S. 833 (1992).

[10] See id.

[11] 579 U.S. 582 (2016); 591 U.S.     , 2020 WL 3492640.

[12] See id.

[13] See, e.g., Planned Parenthood of Central Missouri v. Danforth, 428 U.S. 52 (1976).

[14] See Whole Women’s Health v. Jackson, 594 U.S.      (2021), available at: 21A24 Whole Woman's Health v. Jackson (09/01/2021) (supremecourt.gov).

[15] See id.

[16] See id.

[17] See id.

[18] Id.

[19] Id. (Sotomayor, J., dissenting).

[20] Id. (quoting Planned Parenthood of Central Mo. v. Danforth, 428 U. S. 52, 69 (1976)) (brackets in original).

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