America now faces battle to protect right to choose
The debate over abortion in the US has taken a significant turn with the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh B. JESSIE HILL reports
As the dust settles on his contested nomination, attention is now shifting to what impact Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court will have on Roe v. Wade, the landmark case recognising American women’s right to choose to terminate a pregnancy. Will it remain the law of the land?
Kavanaugh told Senator Susan Collins – a key vote to approve his nomination – that he viewed Roe v. Wade as “settled law”. Yet its future looks more tenuous than it ever has.
Replacing Justice Anthony Kennedy, who retired this summer, with Kavanaugh, a deeply conservative judge, will fundamentally remake constitutional doctrine in this area. In 1992, Kennedy’s swing vote preserved Roe v. Wade in a 5-4 decision. More recently, in a 2016 case, Kennedy’s vote was critical to the fivejustice majority, which again affirmed the right to choose as fundamental.
But, despite what he told Collins, Kavanaugh has expressed hostility to Roe. In a speech last year, Kavanaugh praised the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s dissent from the Roe decision. He also voted against an undocumented minor in government custody who wanted an abortion. His record suggests Kavanaugh could provide a critical fifth vote to the anti-roe wing of the court, joining justices Clarence Thomas, John Roberts, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch.
If the Supreme Court does vote to overrule Roe, it wouldn’t immediately make abortion illegal throughout the country. That would probably require five justices to decide that embryos and fetuses are “persons” entitled to constitutional protection. No justice – not even the strongly anti-abortion Justice Antonin Scalia – has ever taken such an extreme view.
Instead, the court would probably say that states are allowed to restrict abortion however they see fit. That means some states would probably outlaw abortion altogether, perhaps with narrow exceptions in cases of rape or incest, or when the woman’s life is in danger. Other states may place few or no restrictions on abortion – perhaps making it illegal only once the fetus is viable, typically after the 22nd week of pregnancy.
Numerous states stand ready to mount a challenge to Roe. In 2018 alone, seven states have introduced or passed so-called ‘heartbeat bills’ that ban abortion as early as six weeks of pregnancy. These laws are bold assaults on Roe’s central premise: that states cannot ban abortions early in pregnancy.
A challenge to a ‘heartbeat bill’ could bring Roe before the court, but in reality, a challenge to a law like that isn’t even necessary. In fact, almost any abortion case, including several that are already pending, could become a vehicle for overturning Roe if the justice choose to hear it. The Supreme Court gets to pick and choose the cases it hears and needs only four justices to vote to hear a case. That means it might decide to weigh in on abortion rights as soon as this autumn.
For example, the newly-composed Supreme Court could decide to take up the constitutionality of laws in Ohio or Indiana banning abortions sought for particular reasons, such as fetal anomaly. Both laws have been blocked by federal courts, and either could still be appealed to the Supreme Court. If the court decides to hear one of those cases, it could uphold the laws on the grounds that Roe was incorrect and a new, more relaxed legal standard should apply to abortion restrictions.
What’s more, nine states, including Wisconsin and West Virginia, actually still have pre-roe abortion bans on the books. These laws weren’t being enforced as long as Roe was the law of the land. If Roe is overturned, it’s possible that prosecutors in those states would try to bring criminal charges against doctors performing abortions, without even waiting for the legislature to pass a new law banning abortion.
Four additional states – North Dakota, South Dakota, Louisiana and Mississippi – have passed so-called ‘trigger laws’
providing that abortion will become illegal the moment Roe is overruled. Even in the absence of laws such as these, though, many state legislatures won’t hesitate to enact new abortion bans immediately. In fact, the Center for Reproductive Rights considers only 21 states to be relatively low-risk for passing new abortion bans if Roe fell.
Of these 21, a few states are expected to take an active role in protecting abortion access in the absence of Roe. This would likely mean that women in Massachusetts would live under a permissive set of laws, while women in Mississippi would face more restrictive ones.
Of course, it’s possible Roe will live another day. With Kavanaugh seated, Chief Justice John Roberts will be at the ideological centre of the court, with four conservatives – Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh – all to the right of him. Roberts is therefore likely to become the swing vote. He is a famously careful jurist who often avoids overruling precedent by issuing a narrow opinion instead. He is also likely concerned about his legacy. He might not want the Roberts Court to be the one that overruled Roe and took away the right to choose. He might be concerned about the backlash among members of the public, who have long assumed that Roe was here to stay and who favour keeping it by more than a two-to-one margin. Then again, many justices have affirmed their devotion to precedent, only to later overturn it. Still, it’s important not to lose sight of the bigger picture. Whether or not Roe goes, with Kavanaugh on the bench the Supreme Court is likely to shift far to the right on reproductive rights – potentially affecting not just abortion, but access to contraception as well.
And, even if Roe isn’t overturned, it may continue to exist in name only, as the Supreme Court is likely to uphold every sort of restriction short of an outright abortion ban. In short, there are many possible paths for Roe v. Wade in the future, and significant questions remain. One thing is almost certain, though – the court will continue to erode the power of Roe.