Dobbs 2. Religion Rules.
When I was in college, as it happens the same college Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito was attending, and just beginning to get interested in American government and the Constitution, conservatives were up at arms over a series of Supreme Court decisions. They faulted what they branded an “activist” court for expanding on cases before them to consider issues not raised by the facts in dispute, for finding in the Constitution rights and powers not actually written in the text, and for in effect writing laws, a power assigned to Congress with the approval of the President.
They were talking about decisions like 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education, which reversed Plessy v. Ferguson, a ruling which allowed the segregation of black and white students into separate schools. Chief Justice Earl Warren, a former Republican governor of California, appointed by President Dwight Eisenhower, who called him a “liberal-conservative,” wrote Brown, effectively ending racial segregation in public schools.
Warren strongly believed that the highest purpose of the law was to “right wrongs” by applying equity and fairness. His Court expanded the constitutional rights of defendants, ensured equal representation in state legislatures, outlawed state-sponsored prayer in public schools, and paved the way for the civil rights and voting rights legislation of the 1960s and the legalization of abortion in 1973. Warren was also a consummate politician, and a hallmark of his leadership is the fact that Brown, Gideon v. Wainwright (right to counsel in criminal cases), and Cooper v. Aaron (states are bound by Supreme Court decisions) were all unanimous decisions. Engel v. Vitale (banning prayer in public schools) had only one dissent.
These landmark decisions on fundamental rights worked through the Fourteen Amendment’s due process clause.
The conservatives hated each and every decision, thought Warren was a traitor to his party, and Eisenhower’s greatest mistake. Republican Richard Nixon, who is the only President to resign his office in disgrace, feuded with Warren for thirty years.
Now comes the most dramatic expression so far of the conservative’s hatred. Alito’s opinion overturning Roe v. Wade takes from American women the right to an abortion, which had been guaranteed since Roe in 1973. In writing Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization Alito literally screams, “Roe was egregiously wrong from the start.” Alito’s campaign to overturn Roe began at least as far back as 1985 when he was working in the Department of Justice.
The actions of the Dobbs majority are about as “activist” as you can get. Even Chief Justice John Roberts thinks they went too far. He concurred in upholding the Mississippi law but wrote he would not have overturned Roe, something Mississippi had not asked for. But this Chief is not in control of this Court.
In his sweeping opinion Alito attacks the use by the Roe majority of the Fourteen Amendment’s “Substantive Due Process” clause. We will avoid getting into the deep weeds of Constitutional Law. There are many, many, many sources on this issue if you are interested. The Legal Information Institute of Cornell Law School says:
Substantive due process is the principle that the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments protect fundamental rights from government interference. Specifically, the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments prohibit the government from depriving any person of “life, liberty, or property without due process of law.” The Fifth Amendment applies to federal action, and the Fourteenth applies to state action.
The Constitution is one of “enumerated rights,” the Tenth Amendment reserving rights not specifically listed to the States or the People. Just as the Fifth Amendment protects the people from the federal government, the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Court has held, protects people from their state government.
Until Dobbs. Now the issue of abortion, which Alito notes is not to be found in the Constitution, is said to be a right that should be administered by each individual state. Just as a practical matter, in a nation where people and goods freely cross state lines, the idea is ridiculous. Alito branded Roe‘s reasoning “exceptionally weak.” Dobbs is weaker still. The right-wing of the Court threw the very lives of millions of Americans into the hands of state lawmakers just one day after they ruled those same lawmakers are not competent to decide the terms under which they issue concealed carry permits for guns in their own states.
Alito argues that abortion is different from other issues because a “potential life” is at stake. This is not a term to be found in the Constitution either. And if the Roe proposition that the viability of a fetus could be marked by trimesters was “weak,” the Dobbs proposition put forth by Alito and many state legislatures that life dates to the moment of conception is weaker still. The Constitution, for what it is worth, in the Fourteen Amendment, defines citizens as, “All persons born….” Not “conceived.”
The reason Alito cannot make a stronger argument for his irrational proposition is that there is none to be made. Neither law nor science can define when life begins. They couldn’t do it in 1973. They cannot do it today. If we could state with specificity when life begins, we could put forth a solution to what is a moral dilemma. Since we cannot, I opt to believe a women must be allowed to make the decision about what happens to her own body and that neither I nor the government should interfere.
Alito and those who support his position fail on at least two fronts. First, they are hypocritical because they claim to be striving to save a life. Yet they will not support universal health care to protect that life, or pre-natal care, or obstetric care, or pediatric care, or additional aid to public education, or school lunches, or any other of a lengthy list of things they could do to ensure a good life for every “person born….” They opposed supplemental aid which lifted millions of children above the poverty level during the pandemic. They can’t even ban assault rifles to keep kids from getting massacred in school. Even in a statement supporting the Dobbs decision, the Vatican makes this point.
Second, they fail because they are making what is at its core a religious argument. And their religion does not speak for every American. The belief that life begins at conception is a very Catholic belief. And Alito is very Catholic. So are Clarence Thomas, Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett, and Chief John Roberts. Neil Gorsuch was raised Catholic but is now a member of an Episcopalian church. Sonia Sotomayor, who usually votes with the left-wing and dissented from Dobbs, is also Catholic.
This is not reflective of the U.S. population. And more on point, the Roman Catholic doctrine of the majority is not reflective of a majority of those who hold religious beliefs.
Opinion on abortion is far from settled. More importantly, public views on abortion by religion reflect the difficulty most people have with the question of how and when life begins. While Roman Catholic doctrine is clear, there are different views held among the major religions. And among various denominations with religions.
For several religious, theological scholarship places the health of the mother in a paramount position under some circumstances. That, simply put, means many laws banning abortion will violate the religious beliefs of millions of Americans.
With their opinion in Dobbs, The Court’s Catholic majority has established their religious views as the official dicta of the state. Try wrapping your First Amendment around that one.
And there is more to come.