Tuesday, July 7, 2020
Dahlia Lithwick, Women are Being Written Out of Abortion Jurisprudence
It was hard not to miss that there were six separate opinions filed in June Medical Services v. Russo, the major abortion litigation of this year’s Supreme Court term, and that every one of those six separate opinions was penned by a man. When Roe v. Wade was written in 1973, the majority opinion also came from the pen of a man, Justice Harry Blackmun, who was at pains to protect and shield the intimate and vital relationship between a doctor (“he”) and the pregnant women. Of course, there were no women on the Supreme Court in 1973, so one could hardly have expected a woman to write the decision, or even for a man to write it with the experience of women at front of mind. Oddly, almost half a century later, none of the three women on the high court wrote a word in June Medical.
In the interest of being perfectly clear, I herein lay my cards on the table: I’m not a huge fan of this kind of essentializing and almost four years ago to the day I did a little touchdown dance when the opinion in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the Texas abortion ruling with facts virtually identical to those from this year’s, was assigned to Justice Stephen Breyer. At the time I found myself moved by the fact that, as I wrote then, there was “something about Breyer, the court’s sometimes underappreciated fourth feminist, reading patiently from his opinion about the eye-glazing standards that Texas would have required in constructing an ‘ambulatory surgical center,’ that makes the announcement of Whole Woman’s Health just fractionally more perfect. This isn’t just a women’s case about women’s rights and women’s health. ***
There are no women in the plurality opinion in June Medical. There are a lot of physicians (mostly male) seeking admitting privileges at hospitals, and there are a lot of judges (mostly male) substituting their own judgment for the women who desire to terminate a pregnancy. And now there are a whole lot of Supreme Court justices, every last one of them male, substituting their judgment for doctors who tried to get admitting privileges and for the judgment of the other men who have myriad and complicated feelings about women who seek to terminate a pregnancy. While the dissenters are voluble about bits of fetal tissue (Justice Neil Gorsuch) and concern for women as victims of greedy abortionists (Justice Samuel Alito), their complete and utter silence about actual women and their actual choices and their lived lives and their hardship is impossible to escape. All these years later, they are being read out of a theoretical dialogue about which kind of balancing tests the men prefer to administer. It is into this woman-shaped silence that Ginsburg has poured out her own life experience, in cases about wage discrimination, contraception, and harassment, in so many other cases over her career. But it is into this woman-shaped silence that we will now fight the next abortion battles, over a constitutional right—as laid out in Roe, reaffirmed in Casey, strengthened in Whole Woman’s Health—which now comes down to a sort of elaborate agency review of whether clinics and physicians acted “in good faith” to comply with laws whose efficacy doesn’t much matter. And one cannot escape the feeling that we have not come a very long way from Blackmun’s deep regard for the wisdom of the male physicians in Roe, and Justice Anthony Kennedy’s deep regard for the wisdom of male Supreme Court justices in 2007’s Gonzales v. Carhart, as we limp toward a celebration of Roberts’ deep regard for precedent and process. The regard for a woman’s right to choose itself? That doesn’t even register as material.