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The Unbearable Wrongness of Roe

The Unbearable Wrongness of Roe

By Michael Paulsen - January 23, 2012

39 years ago, the Supreme Court delivered a radical, legally untenable, immoral decision. It has forfeited its entitlement to have its decisions respected, and followed, by the other branches of government, by the states, and by the people.

Today, thousands of people at the March for Life in Washington, D.C., are commemorating the thirty-ninth anniversary of a legal and moral monstrosity, Roe v. Wade, and its companion case, Doe v. Bolton. The two cases, in combination, created an essentially unqualified constitutional right of pregnant women to abortion—the right to kill their children, gestating in their wombs, up to the point of birth. After nearly four decades, Roe’s human death toll stands at nearly sixty million human lives, a total exceeding the Nazi Holocaust, Stalin’s purges, Pol Pot’s killing fields, and the Rwandan genocide combined. Over the past forty years, one-sixth of the American population has been killed by abortion. One in four African-Americans is killed before birth. Abortion is the leading cause of (unnatural) death in America.

It is almost too much to contemplate: the prospect that we are living in the midst of, and accepting (to various degrees) one of the greatest human holocausts in history. And so we don’t contemplate it. Instead, we look for ways to deny this grim reality, minimize it, or explain away our complacency—or complicity.

It is important, however, to view reality with eyes wide open, focus clear, and gaze not averted. On this thirty-ninth anniversary of Roe and Doe, I would like simply to set forth what Roe and Doe held, in as clear-headed and straightforwardly descriptive legal terms as possible, and to lay out its human and moral consequences. My brief tour of Roe’s unbearable wrongness begins with Roe’s radicalism—its extreme holding creating a plenary right to obtain or commit abortion—proceeds with Roe’s legal untenability, and concludes with Roe’s immorality and the moral problem of our seeming passivity and quiescence in response to the greatest legal and moral wrongs of our age.

Roe’s Radicalism

Start with Roe’s radicalism, a radicalism that we may no longer grasp because it has become so familiar. Roe created a constitutional right to obtain or commit an abortion of a human life—that is, to terminate the life of a human embryo or fetus. It is important to be clear-sighted about this: abortion kills a living human embryo or fetus. What distinguishes “abortion” from (say) miscarriage is the specific intention to kill a living fetus. What was alive before has been deliberately killed. Abortion takes a life. Further, the life taken is human life. There is really no doubt about that as a matter of biology. The embryo or fetus belongs to the species homo sapiens. It is a separate, living human being that is killed by abortion.

To be sure, that human being is killed at an early stage in its life cycle, and for a substantial part of that time could not live without direct biological connection to his or her mother (the person in whom Roe vests the right to terminate that human life). But that does not make the human embryo any less alive, any less human, or any less a separate life from the mother. It just makes the unborn baby more vulnerable and dependent.

The right created by the Supreme Court in Roe is a constitutional right of some human beings to kill other human beings. I do not mean for my description to be provocative, but simply direct—blunt about facts. One need not presume that the human fetus has a right not to be killed in order to recognize that, as a descriptive matter, Roe creates a right for one class of human beings to kill other human beings.

Roe, coupled with Doe, creates a plenary right to kill the embryo or fetus for essentially any reason, at any time throughout all nine months of pregnancy. Distilled to its essence, Roe created a “trimester” framework for abortion. In roughly the first three months of pregnancy, the right of abortion is avowedly plenary: abortion may be had for any reason. In the second three months, government may regulate abortion to protect the life or health of the mother, but again the right to have an abortion remains plenary. In the final three months—after the point of “viability,” when the human fetus could live on his or her own outside the mother’s womb—Roe says that abortion can be restricted or prohibited . . . except where abortion is necessary to protect the “life or health” of the pregnant woman.

This is a big exception. And here is where Doe steps in. On its face, Roe might appear, to the unwary or uninitiated, “moderate”—its trimester-balancing framework a measured, reasonable-sounding, proportionate act of judicial legislation concerning abortion. It is Doe that does a lot of the work, through an indirect and ultimately disingenuous definition of the “health” reasons that always may justify a woman’s decision to have an abortion and trump any interest of society in protecting fetal human life, even when the child could survive outside the mother’s womb. Doe holds that relevant “health” considerations justifying late-term abortions include “all factors—physical, emotional, psychological, familial, and the woman’s age—relevant to the well-being of the patient. All these factors may relate to health.” (Doe’s understanding of “the patient” did not include the fetus; Roe held elsewhere that the human fetus has no legal rights that any person is bound to respect.)

Roe then cross-referenced Doe’s stylized definition of health and incorporated it into the main holding. The result is that an abortion may be had, under Roe and Doe, for essentially any reason, throughout all nine months of pregnancy, up to the point of birth.

Nothing in any of the Court’s later abortion cases alters this definition of “health” or the right to abortion throughout pregnancy. Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the 1992 case reaffirming Roe, tinkered slightly with the trimester framework and the point at which “viability” occurs but did not change Roe’s (and Doe’s) holding that abortion may be had for any reason, before viability, and for any “health” reason throughout pregnancy. The partial-birth abortion cases carried this understanding forward, holding that the state may not prohibit the abortion method of inducing birth and killing the fetus on the way out of the birth canal (Carhart I [2000]), unless an equally effective, equally “healthy” method of killing the fetus is available (Carhart II [2007]).

I suspect that if more people understood Roe’s and Doe’s actual holding fewer would support that constitutional regime. Roe was a truly extreme decision, creating an effectively unrestricted constitutional right to abort a living human being for any reason the mother might have, throughout pregnancy right up to the point of birth.

Roe’s Legal Untenability

This brings us to Roe’s utter indefensibility as a matter of constitutional law. If the U.S. Constitution actually protected such an extreme personal legal right to kill the human fetus, that would be troubling enough, but the trouble would be with the content of the Constitution. The further problem with Roe is that it has absolutely no basis in the text, structure, or history of the Constitution. No rule or principle of law fairly traceable to the text, discernible from its structure, or fairly derived from evidence of intention or historical understanding of an authoritative decision of the people, remotely supports the result reached in Roe. In terms of fair principles of constitutional interpretation, Roe is perhaps the least defensible major constitutional decision in the Supreme Court’s history.

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Michael Paulsen

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