Sunday, December 26, 2021
On December 1, 2021, the United States Supreme Court heard oral argument in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, where the Court will decide the constitutionality of a law in Mississippi that bans all abortions after fifteen weeks of pregnancy.
By way of background, in Roe v. Wade, the Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, which prevents states from depriving citizens of “life, liberty, or property … without due process of law,” encompassed the right of a woman to terminate a pregnancy. In so doing, the Court adopted a trimester framework: during the first trimester, women had an unfettered right to terminate a pregnancy. During the second trimester, states could regulate abortion access, provided that such regulations were reasonable and narrowly tailored to protect a woman’s health. In the third trimester, states were permitted to ban all abortions, except those necessary to protect the mother’s health.
Nearly two decades later, in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, the Court reaffirmed the central holding in Roe but rejected the trimester approach. In so doing, the Court adopted a viability framework, stating that, before viability (i.e., the state at which a fetus can survive outside the womb, which occurs at approximately twenty-four weeks of pregnancy), states could not place an undue burden on a woman’s right to have an abortion. After viability, states could regulate, and perhaps ban abortions except where necessary to protect the health and life of the mother.
Not surprisingly, the Court’s decisions in Roe and Planned Parenthood were heavily criticized by both conservative and liberal scholars. Indeed, scholars noted that the Constitution’s text – particularly the Fourteenth Amendment – could not be interpreted to include a right to abortion. As Harvard Law professor Lawrence Tribe stated, “behind its own verbal smokescreen, the substantive judgment on which it rests is nowhere to be found." Likewise, late Justice Ruther Bader Ginsburg characterized Roe as “heavy-handed judicial intervention,” a matter of constitutional interpretation. And Edward Lazarus, a former clerk to Justice Harry Blackmun, stated that “even most liberal jurisprudes — if you administer truth serum — will tell you it is basically indefensible."
Regardless, in Planned Parenthood, the Court reaffirmed Roe’s central holding, and for nearly fifty years, women have had the fundamental right to access abortion services, particularly during the first trimester. Thus, principles of stare decisis, and concerns for the Court’s institutional legitimacy, counsel in favor of protecting this right even though Roe is indefensible as a matter of constitutional law. After all, if in Dobbs the Court overturns Roe, it would only be because a majority of current justices are more conservative than their predecessors. Thus, overturning Roe would suggest that constitutional meaning can – and does – change simply because the political and ideological predilections of the justices change. In other words, it would suggest that constitutional rights can be tossed in the proverbial garbage simply because there are more conservatives on the Court in 2021 than there were in 1973 or 1992. That is a recipe for destroying the Court’s legitimacy.
B. Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health
So how is the Court likely to rule in Dobbs? Below is a summary of the justices’ positions during oral argument, and a prediction of how the Court will ultimately rule.
Justices Elena Kagan and Sonya Sotomayor. Justices Kagan and Sotomayor appeared concerned that a decision overturning Roe would severely undermine the Court’s institutional legitimacy. It’s fair to say that Kagan and Sotomayor will vote to invalidate the Mississippi law.
Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. Justices Thomas and Alito will almost certainly vote to overturn Roe and return the abortion debate to the states. Thomas, for example, questioned whether Roe was based on the right to privacy, liberty, or autonomy; his questions suggested that he believes (rightfully so) that there is no textual basis to support the right to abortion. Justice Alito appeared to disagree that stare decisis principles supporting upholding Roe and suggested that Roe could be overturned if the Court believed it was wrongly decided.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Justice Kavanaugh appeared poised to overturn Roe or limit abortion rights. For example, Kavanaugh suggested that overturning Roe and returning the abortion debate to the states would simply return the Court to a position of neutrality on the abortion issue. Given the Court’s decisions in Roe and Planned Parenthood, however, coupled with the fact that the Court’s more conservative membership, not any new constitutional or scientific developments, would arguably underlie a decision to overturn Roe, it can hardly be argued that such a decision would return the Court to a position of neutrality. Instead, it would be perceived – rightfully so – as a blatantly partisan decision. It is difficult to believe that Justice Kavanaugh is not aware of this fact. Additionally, Kavanaugh did not appear receptive to the stare decisis argument, noting that the Court had, in many instances, overturned precedent, most notably in Brown v. Board of Education (overturning Plessy v. Ferguson). What Kavanaugh failed to acknowledge, however, was that in most of these decisions, the Court’s decisions overturning precedent expanded, rather than limited, constitutional protections. Ultimately, Kavanaugh’s questions revealed a willingness to overturn Roe, although it is certainly possible that he will adopt a middle-ground approach that marginally upholds Roe but limits the time within which women may access abortion services.
Chief Justice John Roberts. Not surprisingly, Chief Justice Roberts, who is concerned primarily with preserving the Court’s institutional legitimacy rather than developing a coherent jurisprudence, sought to find a middle ground that would limit, but not eliminate, abortion rights. From his questions, it appears that Roberts supports upholding the Mississippi law yet also reaffirming (albeit limiting) the abortion right. Specifically, Roberts may reject the viability framework and hold that women have the right to access abortion services within a reasonable time after becoming pregnant.
Justice Amy Coney Barrett. Justice Barrett’s questions were quite surprising, to say the least. Most significantly, Barrett implicitly distinguished between the burdens of pregnancy and parenthood and, in so doing, minimized the burden of pregnancy. Specifically, Justice Barrett suggested that, because states have “safe haven laws” allowing women to surrender newborn babies to a medical facility without fear of criminal prosecution, a law outlawing abortion would not materially burden women’s ability to participate equally in society. This question was quite troubling because it reflected ignorance of the physical, emotional, and psychological burdens that a pregnancy engenders, including the deleterious consequences that carrying a pregnancy to term can have on a woman’s personal and professional life. Based on this question alone, it appears that Justice Barrett will uphold Mississippi’s law and, in so doing likely to either vote to overturn Roe and return the abortion issue to the states or vote to limit the time within which women may access abortions.
Justice Stephen Breyer. Justice Breyer’s questions left no doubt that he will vote to invalidate Mississippi’s law and uphold Roe and Planned Parenthood. During the oral argument, Breyer emphasized that Roe was a watershed decision and that principles of stare decisis thus required special and compelling justifications to overturn Roe, which could not be satisfied simply because the Court believed Roe was wrongly decided.
Justice Neil Gorsuch. Justice Gorsuch’s questions suggested that he was deeply skeptical of Roe and the viability framework, but that he was searching for a middle ground that would uphold yet limit the right to abortion.
Of course, the justices’ questions at oral argument are not necessarily indicative of how they might rule. In Dobbs, however, the justices’ questions appeared to reflect fairly entrenched positions regarding the right to abortion and the validity of the Court’s precedents.
Prediction: A majority (five or six votes) will vote to uphold the central holding of Roe. However, the Court will reject the viability framework and hold that women have a right to access abortion services within a reasonable time after becoming pregnant. During this time, the Court will hold that states may not unduly burden a woman’s right to access abortion services.
 410 U.S. 113 (1973).
 See id.
 See id.
 505 U.S. 833 (1992).
 See id.
 Carrie Severino, Dobbs: The Court’s Historic Moment (Part 2) (Nov. 26, 2021), available at: Dobbs: The Court’s Historic Moment (Part 2) | National Review
 Timothy P. Carney, The Pervading Dishonest of Roe v. Wade (Jan. 23, 2012), available at: The pervading dishonesty of Roe v. Wade | Washington Examiner