When I wrote this post after the leak of US Supreme Court Justice Alito’s draft opinion on an abortion law in Mississippi, we weren’t sure if there would be changes before the decision was announced.
When the decision was announced on June 24, it was little changed from the draft. The majority signed on to the opinion that Roe v. Wade had been “wrongly decided” and threw the matter of the legality of abortion to each state’s legislature.
It’s not that long-standing Supreme Court precedents have never been overturned or declared “wrongly decided” – the Dred Scott decision springs to mind – but the Dobbs case was the first time that such a reversal came at the expense of a recognized right.
Many lawyers and Constitutional scholars have faulted the majority’s decision on historical and legal grounds, as Alito seems to cherry-pick sources in support of his view while ignoring the mainstream history and scholarship to the contrary. For example, while it is true that the Constitution does not specify a right to an abortion, it also never uses the word “woman” or “family.” There are many rights that have been recognized by the courts over the centuries that are not specifically cited in the Constitution under the Ninth Amendment which states “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” The right to privacy and to bodily autonomy belong to each person and should not be under the jurisdiction of the government at any level. The Alito opinion also seems to violate the Thirteenth Amendment against involuntary servitude and the Fourteenth Amendment which promises “equal protection of the laws.”
While Alito said that abortion was a unique situation in terms of privacy protections, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a concurrence that openly questions other rulings, such as those allowing contraception and marriage equality in all states. Somehow, he didn’t suggest that the Loving case, which forced all states to allow interracial marriage, had been wrongly decided, one assumes because he is a partner in one.
It’s now a little less than a month since the decision was handed down and there is upheaval. There have been many protests and public demonstrations. Some states moved to ban all abortions or all after six weeks of pregnancy. Some states are even trying to prevent people from crossing state lines to receive care, as though being a resident of a state gave them ownership over you. While the House has passed legislation to codify abortion rights similarly to Roe and to allow interstate travel for medical care, the Senate Republicans have blocked both measures from coming to a vote.
Some states are protecting and codifying the Roe framework. My home state, New York, had done this previously and is now beginning the years-long process to amend the equal rights protections of the state constitution to include “sex, including sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, pregnancy, pregnancy outcomes, and reproductive health care and autonomy”. Bonus: this will protect marriage rights and stand against all gender-related discrimination, as well as returning reproductive health rights to each individual.
Before the decision was handed down, those of us warning of the dangers to the health and well-being of pregnant people were scolded for being alarmist, but we were being realistic. Every day, there are stories in the news of delayed care for miscarriages that threatens the health and life of the mother. There are stories of rape victims having to go to another state for an abortion. The most heart-breaking of these is the case of a ten-year-old rape victim who had to travel from Ohio to Indiana to receive an abortion at six and a half weeks pregnancy. This child has had to endure not only rape and the severe threat to her health that pregnancy at such a young age entails but also the trauma of some politicians and commentators questioning the veracity of her story.
These cases show the dangers of trying to legislate what should be private medical decisions. While some are contending that it’s not really an abortion if a child is pregnant and her life is endangered or if there is an ectopic pregnancy or if there is an incomplete miscarriage, medically speaking, all pregnancies end either in live birth or an abortion. Miscarriage is not a medical term; on medical records, it is termed a spontaneous abortion. Health care providers are being put in the impossible situation to provide the best care to their patients or to be forced by lawyers to wait until their patients are clearly dying themselves before intervening to remove a doomed fetus. When the federal government reminded hospital emergency rooms that they are required to treat any endangered pregnant person to save their life, the state of Texas filed suit, saying that their state law against abortion should take precedence.
Some states are making moves not only against abortion but also against contraceptives, even though these are not abortifacient. They are trying to prevent people from crossing state lines to receive care. As I mentioned previously, while the US House of Representatives has passed legislation to codify abortion rights and to affirm the right to interstate travel, the Senate is not taking these up because of obstruction by Republicans. Chillingly, there is talk of the Republicans passing a national abortion ban if they regain the Congressional majority. Meanwhile, Republicans fail to pass legislation that would uphold the health and dignity of each person, such as universal health care, living wages, social welfare support, etc.
As a Catholic woman, I knew this was coming. Alito was parroting the arguments that Catholic bishops have made against abortion and Thomas went even further down that road in his calls against contraception. I have struggled for years against a church that denies my full personhood as a woman, despite their lip service to the concept of human dignity. I did not expect my country to follow suit.
Like most women my age, I didn’t think we would still be fighting these kinds of equality battles, but we will. I can’t predict the manner or timing of victory, but we will not be demoted to second class citizenship by a skewed Supreme Court.