By Ruth Marcus [December 7, 2021]
The vision of getting the courts out of the abortion-deciding business sounds so reasonable, so alluring.
It is also wrong, misleading and dangerous.
Mississippi Solicitor General Scott Stewart laid out the argument during the oral argument last week — urging the justices not only to uphold his state’s ban on abortion after 15 weeks but to overrule its decisions finding that the Constitution protects a woman’s right to choose.
“The Constitution places its trust in the people,” Stewart said. “On hard issue after hard issue, the people make this country work. Abortion is a hard issue. It demands the best from all of us, not a judgment by just a few of us. When an issue affects everyone and when the Constitution does not take sides on it, it belongs to the people.”
Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh amplified Stewart’s argument, presenting it as the position of one side but leaving little doubt how much it resonated with him.
The Constitution, Kavanaugh posited, is “neutral” on abortion, “neither pro-life nor pro-choice.” Consequently, “this Court should be scrupulously neutral on the question of abortion … rather than continuing to pick sides.”
How superficially appealing all this is. Who could be against neutrality, especially scrupulous neutrality? Who disagrees with leaving choices to “the people” in a democracy?
The fundamental flaw here is that the Constitution exists in no small part to protect the rights of the individual against the tyranny of the majority. The Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment exist to put some issues off limits for majority rule — as Justice Robert H. Jackson put it in a 1943 ruling protecting the right of Jehovah’s Witness schoolchildren not to be forced to salute the flag, “to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities.” The Supreme Court, in protecting abortion rights, isn’t telling women what to do: It is preserving space for them to make their own decisions about their own pregnancies.
The Constitution instructs that the majority cannot force its preferred religion on the minority; in fact, it must respect and accommodate individuals’ free exercise of their own religious beliefs. The Constitution teaches that the majority cannot choose to shut down or punish speech that it finds disagreeable or even offensive. It means that “the people’s” decisions about how to reduce gun violence are limited by the court’s interpretation of the Second Amendment.
Conservative justices have had no difficulty taking this disempowering of “the people” to sometimes questionable extremes.
They’re happy to second-guess the decisions of elected officials and public health experts about how best to safeguard their communities in the midst of a pandemic when religious institutions claim their rights are being violated. They don’t flinch at saying that the core First Amendment protection for political speech places strict limits on Congress’s ability to limit corporate spending on elections or enact other campaign finance rules.
Abortion is different from these examples, of course, because it is not mentioned in the Constitution. But that does not make abortion unique among constitutional rights. There are any number of rights that the court has long found fall within the bounds of constitutional protection even though they are not specifically mentioned in the text. The right to travel. The right of parents to educate their children as they choose. The right to contraception. The right to private sexual conduct. The right to marry a person of another race. The right to marry a person of the same gender.
All these derive from the intentionally broad phrases of the 14th Amendment’s protections against the deprivation of “liberty” without due process of law. “The full scope of the liberty guaranteed by the Due Process Clause cannot be found in or limited by the precise terms of the specific guarantees elsewhere provided in the Constitution,” Justice John Harlan, no liberal, explained in a 1961 dissent, from an early case involving access to contraception.
And so in 1972, extending its ruling protecting married couples’ right to obtain contraception to unmarried individuals, Justice William J. Brennan Jr. wrote, “If the right of privacy means anything, it is the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child.”
Thus, constitutional protection for the right to abortion is not a deviation from the court’s jurisprudence, it is a logical extension of it. “Our obligation is to define the liberty of all, not to mandate our own moral code,” the court plurality noted in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey. “The underlying constitutional issue is whether the State can resolve these philosophic questions in such a definitive way that a woman lacks all choice in the matter,” except perhaps in “rare circumstances.”
Stewart, the Mississippi lawyer, blithely assured the justices thatthe court’s abortion cases are unique, and that its other precedents, on contraception, gay rights or same-sex marriage wouldn’t be next in line if Roe and Casey fell. But why not? Maybe conservative activists have no burning desire to overrule Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 same-sex marriage ruling, but as a logical matter the right, without a basis in history or tradition, should be at least as vulnerable as abortion.
“I’m not sure how your answer makes any sense,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor told Stewart. “All of those other cases … rely on substantive due process. You’re saying there’s no substantive due process in the Constitution, so they’re just as wrong, according to your theory.”
To say that the Constitution is “neutral” is another way of saying that women enjoy no protection, no liberty to decide what to do with their own bodies — or, more precisely, only so much protection as the state where they live chooses to grant them.
And to withhold protection — in the current circumstance, to withdraw the protection that has existed for almost 50 years since Roe v. Wade — is not a neutral choice. It is a thumb on the scale.
Ruth Marcus is deputy editorial page editor for The Washington Post. She also writes a weekly column.