An originalist reading of the text and history of the Fourteenth Amendment, in fact, provides a strong basis for protecting unenumerated fundamental rights, including rights to bodily integrity, establishing a family, and reproductive liberty. The right to abortion flows logically from there. The Supreme Court should recognize this when it decides this term’s blockbuster case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.
It is of course true that the debates over the Fourteenth Amendment do not explicitly mention abortion. But there is no daylight between the rights specifically affirmed in the debates and the right to abortion.
The rights to control one’s body, establish a family, and have children necessarily safeguard the right to abortion as a fundamental right. The right of “having a family, a wife, children, home,” as Senator Jacob Howard, who played a central role in drafting the Fourteenth Amendment, put it, guarantees to the individual free choice in matters of family and childbirth, in the same way that the freedom of speech also includes the right to not speak. The right to bear and raise children and the right to abortion are two sides of the same coin—both integral parts of reproductive freedom. In our constitutional heritage, laws that prohibit abortion and those that compel abortion are equally offensive to bodily integrity, autonomy, and equal dignity.***
To understand why the Fourteenth Amendment’s protections are so sweeping and phrased in general terms, remember that the amendment was a response to slavery. Its framers sought to safeguard fundamental rights that have no explicit textual basis in the Bill of Rights but that are crucial to equality and liberty. To ensure true freedom and redress the subjugation of Black bodies during slavery required, at a minimum, asserting control over one’s body as a basic right. During the debates, members of Congress insisted that a person’s “uninterrupted enjoyment of his life, his limbs, his body, his health” was a bedrock right guaranteed to all. Without bodily integrity, the Fourteenth Amendment’s promise of equal citizenship would be illusory.
Protecting people’s reproductive liberty was very much a part of that effort to define what it means to not be enslaved—to be free. One of slavery’s cruelest aspects was the brutal denial of reproductive autonomy in matters of family life. Plantation owners forced enslaved women to bear children who would be born into bondage. Rape and other forms of coerced procreation enabled the growth of the institution of slavery, even after the international slave trade was outlawed in 1808. “Slavery is terrible for men,” wrote Harriet Jacobs in the 1861 narrative of her enslavement, “but it is far more terrible for women.” Jacobs’s autobiography, as the intellectual Henry Louis Gates has observed, demonstrated how enslaved women were treated as “object[s] to be raped, bred, or abused.” Not only were enslaved people coerced into bearing children; enslaved people in loving relationships had no right to marry or raise children of their own. ***
The framers of the Fourteenth Amendment recoiled at the treatment of enslaved families and wrote the amendment to provide broad protection for what might be called rights of heart and home: the right to marry a loved one, to establish a family, to decide whether to bear and raise children. As the debates in the 39th Congress reflect, true freedom would be impossible without securing those freed from enslavement the right “to be protected in their homes and families,” as Senator John Sherman said. Because reproductive freedom and family life were impossible “where the wife is the property of the husband’s master and may be used at will” and where “children are bred, like stock, for sale,” Representative Thomas Eliot argued, “no act of ours can fitly enforce their freedom that does not contemplate for them the security of home.” The denial of these basic rights under slavery provided an invaluable lesson about the meaning of freedom: Decisions about marriage, family, and reproduction had to be left to the individual, not coerced by the government or subject to the brutal domination of another.
During the debates in the 39th Congress, Senator Howard eloquently spoke to how enslaved people had been robbed of their dignity and stripped of their rights to marry a loved one, start a family according to their desires, and enjoy reproductive freedom.