In Dobbs, the Trump court defines the Constitution’s protections for liberty largely with reference to laws enacted in mid-19th-century America. During that period — conveniently enough — there was a campaign to ban abortion across the nation. (Alito includes an appendix enumerating many of these state statutes.) But consider what else was part of this period’s “history and traditions”: The law did not protect a wife’s right to control property, earnings, or sex in marriage; this was a period when the Supreme Court declared states could deny women the right to practice law and states could deny women the right to vote.
Why would the Supreme Court today tether the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment’s liberty guarantee to laws enacted by men with such a cramped view of women’s rights? The move is unprecedented.
Jill Hasday, On Roe, Alito Cites a Judge who Treated Women as Witches and Property
There are at least two problems with Alito’s reliance on history. First, Alito has misrepresented the actual historical record. As abundant historical research establishes, the common law that governed America in its first decades and beyond did not regulate abortion before “quickening” — the moment when a pregnant woman first detects fetal movement, which can happen as late as 25 weeks into pregnancy.
Alito reports that [Judge] Hale “described abortion of a quick child who died in the womb as a ‘great crime’ ” while glossing over the key part of that passage. Hale wrote that abortion was a crime “if a woman be quick or great with child.” Note the “if.”
Second, Alito relies on sources such as Hale without acknowledging their entanglement with legalized male supremacy. The men who cited Hale as they constructed the early American legal order refused to give women the right to vote or to otherwise enjoy full citizenship. Relying on that history of injustice as a reason to deny modern women control over their own lives is a terrible argument but apparently the best Alito can do.
Hale was a man who believed women could be witches, assumed women were liars and thought husbands owned their wives’ bodies. It is long past time to leave that misogyny behind.