Is Abortion An “Unalienable Right”? Details of Supreme Court Decision.

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6 to 3 that this Mississippi state law was permitted by the U.S. Constitution:

“Except in a medical emergency or in the case of a severe fetal abnormality, a person shall not intentionally or knowingly perform . . . or induce an abortion of an unborn human being if the probable gestational age of the unborn human being has been determined to be greater than fifteen (15) weeks.”

Click here for complete published opinion of Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, U.S. Supreme Court Case 19-1392, decided June 24, 2022.  19-1392 Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization (06/24/2022) (supremecourt.gov)

JUSTICE ALITO wrote the majority opinion and was joined by THOMAS, GORSUCH, KAVANAUGH, and BARRETT.  They ruled that states can adopt reasonable laws to restrict or stop abortion.  CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS  wrote a separate opinion ruling only that the Mississippi law restricting abortions after 15 weeks was constitutional.  BREYER, SOTOMAYOR, and KAGAN, JJ., filed a dissenting opinion stating that the Mississippi law was unconstitutional according to the doctrine of the 1973 Roe vs. Wade case.

What is your opinion?  Please read the details in the excerpts of our founding documents and written opinions of the Supreme Court justices set forth below:

U.S. DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE, JULY 4, 1776:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident:  That all men are created equal.  That they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.  That among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. . . “

9TH AMENDMENT OF U.S. CONSTITUTION (1791 BILL OF RIGHTS):  “The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people”.

14TH AMENDMENT OF U.S. CONSTITUTION (1868 “CIVIL WAR AMENDMENTS”):  “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States, and of the State wherein they reside.  No State may make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty or property, without due process of law; nor to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. . . “

MAJORITY OPINION OF ALITO, THOMAS, GORSUCH, KAVANAUGH and BARRETT:

Abortion presents a profound moral issue on which Americans hold sharply conflicting views. Some believe fervently that a human person comes into being at conception and that abortion ends an innocent life. Others feel just as strongly that any regulation of abortion invades a woman’s right to control her own body and prevents women from achieving full equality. Still others in a third group think that abortion should be allowed under some but not all circumstances, and those within this group hold a variety of views about the particular restrictions that should be imposed.

For the first 185 years after the adoption of the Constitution, each State was permitted to address this issue in accordance with the views of its citizens. Then, in 1973, this Court decided Roe v. Wade, 410 U. S. 113. Even though the Constitution makes no mention of abortion, the Court held that it confers a broad right to obtain one. It did not claim that American law or the common law had ever recognized such a right, and its survey of history ranged from the constitutionally irrelevant (e.g., its discussion of abortion in antiquity) to the plainly incorrect (e.g., its assertion that abortion was probably never a crime under the common law).

After cataloging a wealth of other information having no bearing on the meaning of the Constitution, the opinion concluded with a numbered set of rules much like those that might be found in a statute enacted by a legislature. Under this scheme, each trimester of pregnancy was regulated differently, but the most critical line was drawn at roughly the end of the second trimester, which, at the time, corresponded to the point at which a fetus was thought to achieve “viability,” i.e., the ability to survive outside the womb. Although the Court acknowledged that States had a legitimate interest in protecting “potential life,” it found that this interest could not justify any restriction on pre-viability abortions. The Court did not explain the basis for this line, and even abortion supporters have found it hard to defend Roe’s reasoning. . .

Eventually, in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey, 505 U. S. 833 (1992), the Court revisited Roe, but the Members of the Court split three ways. . . Casey threw out Roe’s trimester scheme and substituted a new rule of uncertain origin under which States were forbidden to adopt any regulation that imposed an “undue burden” on a woman’s right to have an abortion. The decision provided no clear guidance about the difference between a “due” and an “undue” burden. But the three Justices who authored the controlling opinion “call[ed] the contending sides of a national controversy to end their national division” by treating the Court’s decision as the final settlement of the question of the constitutional right to abortion. . .

As has become increasingly apparent in the intervening years, Casey did not achieve that goal. Americans continue to hold passionate and widely divergent views on abortion, and state legislatures have acted accordingly. Some have recently enacted laws allowing abortion, with few restrictions, at all stages of pregnancy. Others have tightly restricted abortion beginning well before viability. And in this case, 26 States have expressly asked this Court to overrule Roe and Casey and allow the States to regulate or prohibit pre-viability abortions. Before us now is one such state law. . .

The State of Mississippi asks us to uphold the constitutionality of a law that generally prohibits an abortion after the 15th week of pregnancy—several weeks before the point at which a fetus is now regarded as “viable” outside the womb. In defending this law, the State’s primary argument is that we should reconsider and overrule Roe and Casey and once again allow each State to regulate abortion as its citizens wish. . .

We hold that Roe and Casey must be overruled. The Constitution makes no reference to abortion, and no such right is implicitly protected by any constitutional provision, including the one on which the defenders of Roe and Casey now chiefly rely—the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. That provision has been held to guarantee some rights that are not mentioned in the Constitution, but any such right must be “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition” and “implicit in the concept of ordered liberty.” The right to abortion does not fall within this category. Until the latter part of the 20th century, such a right was entirely unknown in American law. Indeed, when the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted, three quarters of the States made abortion a crime at all stages of pregnancy. The abortion right is also critically different from any other right that this Court has held to fall within the Fourteenth Amendment’s protection of “liberty.” Roe’s defenders char[1]acterize the abortion right as similar to the rights recognized in past decisions involving matters such as intimate sexual relations, contraception, and marriage, but abortion is fundamentally different, as both Roe and Casey acknowledged, because it destroys what those decisions called “fetal life” and what the law now before us describes as an “un[1]born human being.”

The law at issue in this case, Mississippi’s Gestational Age Act contains this central provision: “Except in a medical emergency or in the case of a severe fetal abnormality, a person shall not intentionally or knowingly perform . . . or induce an abortion of an unborn human being if the probable gestational age of the unborn human being has been determined to be greater than fifteen (15) weeks.” To support this Act, the legislature made a series of factual findings.

It began by noting that, at the time of enactment, only six countries besides the United States “permit nontherapeutic or elective abortion-on-demand after the twentieth week of gestation.” The Act defines “gestational age” to be “the age of an unborn human being as calculated from the first day of the last menstrual period of the pregnant woman.” §3(f ). Those other six countries were Canada, China, the Netherlands. . .   (I)t then found that at 5 or 6 weeks’ gestational age an “un[1]born human being’s heart begins beating”; at 8 weeks the “unborn human being begins to move about in the womb”; at 9 weeks “all basic physiological functions are present”; at 10 weeks “vital organs begin to function,” and “[h]air, fin[1]gernails, and toenails . . . begin to form”; at 11 weeks “an unborn human being’s diaphragm is developing,” and he or she may “move about freely in the womb”; and at 12 weeks the “unborn human being” has “taken on ‘the human form’ in all relevant respects.”  It found that most abortions after 15 weeks employ “dilation and evacuation procedures which involve the use of surgical instruments to crush and tear the unborn child,” and it concluded that the “intentional commitment of such acts for nontherapeutic or elective reasons is a barbaric practice, dangerous for the maternal patient, and demeaning to the medical profession.” . . .

We therefore turn to the question that the Casey plurality did not consider, and we address that question in three steps. First, we explain the standard that our cases have used in determining whether the Fourteenth Amendment’s reference to “liberty” protects a particular right. Second, we examine whether the right at issue in this case is rooted in our Nation’s history and tradition and whether it is an essential component of what we have described as “ordered liberty.” Finally, we consider whether a right to obtain an abortion is part of a broader entrenched right that is supported by other precedents. . .

The Constitution makes no express reference to a right to obtain an abortion, and therefore those who claim that it protects such a right must show that the right is somehow implicit in the constitutional text. Roe, however, was remarkably loose in its treatment of the constitutional text. It held that the abortion right, which is not mentioned in the Constitution, is part of a right to privacy, which is also not mentioned. . .

The Casey Court did not defend this unfocused analysis and instead grounded its decision solely on the theory that the right to obtain an abortion is part of the “liberty” protected by the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause. We discuss this theory in depth below, but before doing so, we briefly address one additional constitutional provision that some of respondents’ amici have now offered as yet another potential home for the abortion right: the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. . .

The regulation of a medical procedure only one sex can undergo does not trigger heightened constitutional scrutiny unless the regulation is a “mere pretex[t] designed to effect an invidious discrimination against members of one sex or the other.” And as the Court has stated, the “goal of preventing abortion” does not constitute “invidiously discriminatory animus” against women. Accordingly, laws regulating or prohibiting abortion are not subject to heightened scrutiny. Rather, they are governed by the same standard of review as other health and safety measures.

With this new theory addressed, we turn to Casey’s bold assertion that the abortion right is an aspect of the “liberty” protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. . . But our decisions have held that the Due Process Clause protects two categories of substantive rights. The first consists of rights guaranteed by the first eight Amendments. Those Amendments originally applied only to the Federal Government, but this Court has held that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment “incorporates” the great majority of those rights and thus makes them equally applicable to the States.

The second category— which is the one in question here—comprises a select list of fundamental rights that are not mentioned anywhere in the Constitution. In deciding whether a right falls into either of these categories, the Court has long asked whether the right is “deeply rooted in [our] history and tradition” and whether it is essential to our Nation’s “scheme of ordered liberty.”

In concluding that the Eighth Amendment’s protection against excessive fines is “fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty” and “deeply rooted in this Na[1]tion’s history and tradition,  her opinion traced the right back to Magna Carta, Blackstone’s Commentaries, and 35 of the 37 state constitutions in effect at the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment.

A similar inquiry was undertaken in McDonald, which held that the Fourteenth Amendment protects the right to keep and bear arms. . .

It would be anomalous if similar historical support were not required when a putative right is not mentioned anywhere in the Constitution. Thus, in Glucksberg, which held that the Due Process Clause does not confer a right to assisted suicide, the Court surveyed more than 700 years of “Anglo-American common law tradition,” 521 U. S., at 711, and made clear that a fundamental right must be “objectively, deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition,” . . .

Historical inquiries of this nature are essential whenever we are asked to recognize a new component of the “liberty” protected by the Due Process Clause because the term “liberty” alone provides little guidance. “Liberty” is a capacious term. As Lincoln once said: “We all declare for Liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing.” . . .

In interpreting what is meant by the Fourteenth Amendment’s reference to “liberty,” we must guard against the natural human tendency to confuse what that Amendment protects with our own ardent views about the liberty that Americans should enjoy. That is why the Court has long been “reluctant” to recognize rights that are not mentioned in the Constitution. . .

The Court must not fall prey to such an unprincipled approach. Instead, guided by the history and tradition that map the essential components of our Nation’s concept of ordered liberty, we must ask what the Fourteenth Amendment means by the term “liberty.” When we engage in that inquiry in the present case, the clear answer is that the Fourteenth Amendment does not protect the right to an abortion.  Until the latter part of the 20th century, there was no support in American law for a constitutional right to obtain an abortion. No state constitutional provision had recognized such a right. Until a few years before Roe was handed down, no federal or state court had recognized such a right. Nor had any scholarly treatise of which we are aware. . .

Not only was there no support for such a constitutional right until shortly before Roe, but abortion had long been a crime in every single State. At common law, abortion was criminal in at least some stages of pregnancy and was regarded as unlawful and could have very serious consequences at all stages. American law followed the common law until a wave of statutory restrictions in the 1800s expanded criminal liability for abortions. By the time of the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment, three-quarters of the States had made abortion a crime at any stage of pregnancy, and the remaining States would soon follow. Roe either ignored or misstated this history, and Casey declined to reconsider Roe’s faulty historical analysis.  It is therefore important to set the record straight. . . (examples omitted).

Defenders of Roe and Casey do not claim that any new scientific learning calls for a different answer to the underlying moral question, but they do contend that changes in society require the recognition of a constitutional right to obtain an abortion. Without the availability of abortion, they maintain, people will be inhibited from exercising their freedom to choose the types of relationships they de[1]sire, and women will be unable to compete with men in the workplace and in other endeavors. Americans who believe that abortion should be restricted press countervailing arguments about modern developments. They note that attitudes about the pregnancy of unmarried women have changed drastically; that federal and state laws ban discrimination on the basis of pregnancy; that leave for pregnancy and childbirth are now guaranteed by law in many cases; that the costs of medical care associated with pregnancy are covered by insurance or government assistance;  that States have increasingly adopted “safe haven” laws, which generally allow women to drop off babies anonymously; and that a woman who puts her new[1]born up for adoption today has little reason to fear that the baby will not find a suitable home. They also claim that many people now have a new appreciation of fetal life and that when prospective parents who want to have a child view a sonogram, they typically have no doubt that what they see is their daughter or son.

We have held that the “established method of substantive-due-process analysis” requires that an unenumerated right be “‘deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition’” before it can be recognized as a component of the “liberty” protected in the Due Process Clause. . . As explained, for more than a century after 1868—including “another half-century” after women gained the constitutional right to vote in 1920, it was firmly established that laws prohibiting abortion like the Texas law at issue in Roe were permissible exercises of state regulatory authority. And today, another half century later, more than half of the States have asked us to overrule Roe and Casey. The dissent cannot establish that a right to abortion has ever been part of this Nation’s tradition. . .

Second, it is impossible to defend Roe based on prior precedent because all of the precedents Roe cited, including Griswold and Eisenstadt, were critically different for a reason that we have explained: None of those cases involved the destruction of what Roe called “potential life.” So without support in history or relevant precedent, Roe’s reasoning cannot be defended even under the dissent’s proposed test, and the dissent is forced to rely solely on the fact that a constitutional right to abortion was recognized in Roe and later decisions that accepted Roe’s interpretation.

Under the doctrine of stare decisis, those precedents are entitled to careful and respectful consideration, and we engage in that analysis below. But as the Court has reiterated time and time again, adherence to precedent is not “‘an inexorable command.’” There are occasions when past decisions should be overruled, and as we will explain, this is one of them.

The most striking feature of the dissent is the absence of any serious discussion of the legitimacy of the States’ interest in protecting fetal life. This is evident in the analogy that the dissent draws between the abortion right and the rights recognized in Griswold (contraception), Eisenstadt (same), Lawrence (sexual conduct with member of the same sex), and Obergefell (same-sex marriage). Perhaps this is designed to stoke unfounded fear that our decision will imperil those other rights, but the dissent’s analogy is objectionable for a more important reason: what it reveals about the dissent’s views on the protection of what Roe called “potential life.” The exercise of the rights at issue in Griswold, Eisenstadt, Lawrence, and Obergefell does not destroy a “potential life,” but an abortion has that effect. So if the rights at issue in those cases are fundamentally the same as the right recognized in Roe and Casey, the implication is clear: The Constitution does not permit the States to regard the destruction of a “potential life” as a matter of any significance. That view is evident throughout the dissent.

The dissent has much to say about the effects of pregnancy on women, the burdens of motherhood, and the difficulties faced by poor women. These are important concerns. However, the dissent evinces no similar regard for a State’s interest in protecting prenatal life.

An even more glaring deficiency was Roe’s failure to jusitify the critical distinction it drew between pre- and post-viability abortions. Here is the Court’s entire explanation: “With respect to the State’s important and legitimate interest in potential life, the ‘compelling’ point is at vi[1]ability. This is so because the fetus then presumably has the capability of meaningful life outside the womb

As Professor Laurence Tribe has written, “[c]learly, this mistakes ‘a definition for a syllogism.’”. . .

The definition of a “viable” fetus is one that is capable of surviving outside the womb, but why is this the point at which the State’s interest becomes compelling? If, as Roe held, a State’s interest in protecting prenatal life is compelling “after viability,” 410 U. S., at 163, why isn’t that interest “equally compelling before viability”?

Roe did not say, and no explanation is apparent. This arbitrary line has not found much support among philosophers and ethicists who have attempted to justify a right to abortion. Some have argued that a fetus should not be entitled to legal protection until it acquires the characteristics that they regard as defining what it means to be a “person.” Among the characteristics that have been offered as essential attributes of “personhood” are sentience, self-awareness, the ability to reason, or some combination thereof.  By this logic, it would be an open question whether even born individuals, including young children or those afflicted with certain developmental or medical conditions, merit protection as “persons.”

But even if one takes the view that “personhood” begins when a certain attribute or combination of attributes is acquired, it is very hard to see why viability should mark the point where “personhood” begins. The most obvious problem with any such argument is that viability is heavily dependent on factors that have nothing to do with the characteristics of a fetus. One is the state of neonatal care at a particular point in time. Due to the development of new equipment and improved practices, the viability line has changed over the years. In the 19th century, a fetus may not have been viable until the 32d or 33d week of pregnancy or even later.   When Roe was decided, viability was gauged at roughly 28 weeks. Today, respondents draw the line at 23 or 24 weeks. . .

Viability also depends on the “quality of the available medical facilities.” Thus, a 24-week-old fetus may be viable if a woman gives birth in a city with hospitals that provide advanced care for very premature babies, but if the woman travels to a remote area far from any such hospital, the fetus may no longer be viable. On what ground could the constitutional status of a fetus depend on the pregnant woman’s location?

CONCURRING OPINION BY CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS:  I would decide the question we granted review to answer—whether the previously recognized abortion right bars all abortion restrictions prior to viability, such that a ban on abortions after fifteen weeks of pregnancy is necessarily unlawful. The answer to that question is no, and there is no need to go further to decide this case. I therefore concur only in the judgment.

DISSENTING OPINION BY JUSTICES BREYER, SOTOMAYOR, AND KAGAN: For half a century, Roe v. Wade, 410 U. S. 113 (1973), and Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey, 505 U. S. 833 (1992), have protected the liberty and equality of women. Roe held, and Casey reaffirmed, that the Constitution safeguards a woman’s right to decide for herself whether to bear a child. Roe held, and Casey reaffirmed, that in the first stages of pregnancy, the government could not make that choice for women. The government could not control a woman’s body or the course of a woman’s life: It could not determine what the woman’s future would be.

Respecting a woman as an autonomous being, and granting her full equality, meant giving her substantial choice over this most personal and most consequential of all life decisions. Roe and Casey well understood the difficulty and divisiveness of the abortion issue. The Court knew that Americans hold profoundly different views about the “moral[ity]” of “terminating a pregnancy, even in its earliest stage.” Casey, 505 U. S., at 850. And the Court recognized that “the State has legitimate interests from the outset of the pregnancy in protecting” the “life of the fetus that may become a child.” So the Court struck a balance, as it often does when values and goals compete. It held that the State could prohibit abortions after fetal viability, so long as the ban contained exceptions to safeguard a woman’s life or health. It held that even before viability, the State could regulate the abortion procedure in multiple and meaningful ways. But until the viability line was crossed, the Court held, a State could not impose a “substantial obstacle” on a woman’s “right to elect the procedure” as she (not the government) thought proper, in light of all the circumstances and complexities of her own life.

Today, the Court discards that balance. It says that from the very moment of fertilization, a woman has no rights to speak of. A State can force her to bring a pregnancy to term, even at the steepest personal and familial costs. An abortion restriction, the majority holds, is permissible whenever rational, the lowest level of scrutiny known to the law. And because, as the Court has often stated, protecting fetal life is rational, States will feel free to enact all manner of restrictions. The Mississippi law at issue here bars abortions after the 15th week of pregnancy. Under the majority’s ruling, though, another State’s law could do so after ten weeks, or five or three or one—or, again, from the moment of fertilization. States have already passed such laws, in anticipation of today’s ruling. More will follow. Some States have enacted laws extending to all forms of abortion procedure, including taking medication in one’s own home. They have passed laws without any exceptions for when the woman is the victim of rape or incest. Under those laws, a woman will have to bear her rapist’s child or a young girl her father’s—no matter if doing so will destroy her life. So too, after today’s ruling, some States may compel women to carry to term a fetus with severe physical anomalies—for example, one afflicted with Tay-Sachs disease, sure to die within a few years of birth. States may even argue that a prohibition on abortion need make no provision for protecting a woman from risk of death or physical harm. Across a vast array of circumstances, a State will be able to impose its moral choice on a woman and coerce her to give birth to a child. Enforcement of all these draconian restrictions will also be left largely to the States’ devices. A State can of course impose criminal penalties on abortion providers, including lengthy prison sentences. But some States will not stop there.

Perhaps, in the wake of today’s decision, a state law will criminalize the woman’s conduct too, incarcerating or fining her for daring to seek or obtain an abortion. And as Texas has recently shown, a State can turn neighbor against neighbor, enlisting fellow citizens in the effort to root out anyone who tries to get an abortion, or to assist another in doing so. The majority tries to hide the geographically expansive effects of its holding. Today’s decision, the majority says, permits “each State” to address abortion as it pleases. That is cold comfort, of course, for the poor woman who cannot get the money to fly to a distant State for a procedure. Above all others, women lacking financial resources will suffer from today’s decision.

In any event, interstate restrictions will also soon be in the offing. After this decision, some States may block women from traveling out of State to obtain abortions, or even from receiving abortion medications from out of State. Some may criminalize efforts, including the provision of information or funding, to help women gain access to other States’ abortion services. Most threatening of all, no language in today’s decision stops the Federal Government from prohibiting abortions nationwide, once again from the moment of conception and without exceptions for rape or incest. If that happens, “the views of [an individual State’s] citizens” will not matter. . .

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