Now that the dust has begun to settle after the initial explosive news that the US supreme court is poised to overrule the right to abortion and that Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization represents what a majority of the court initially voted to do, among the most revealing ways to understand the devastation the court appears ready to wreak on America’s long march toward “liberty and justice for all” is to examine the kinds of arguments being made in the opinion’s defense.
The argument that such a ruling would simply return a divisive issue to the people had long since been widely dismantled. It certainly wouldn’t be returned to the people most profoundly affected once women were told they may have to remain pregnant despite whatever urgent reasons they might have for seeking a safe and legal abortion. It couldn’t be described as returning the abortion issue to the states, now that the possibility of a nationwide ban that the supreme court might uphold is on the horizon. And to the extent the issue is returned to the states, it would be returned to state legislatures so gerrymandered that they often represent the views of a distinct minority of the people anyway.
The argument that “only” abortion is involved because Alito’s draft assures readers that the supreme court’s opinion won’t be treated as precedent for anything that doesn’t involve killing an unborn human is both profoundly insulting and manifestly misleading. It insults every sentient person by minimizing the significance of commandeering the bodies and lives of half the population – and re-inserting government power into every family. And it misleads every reader of Alito’s words by suggesting that a court has the power to shape how future lawmakers and judges will build on its decisions and the reasoning underlying them. Alito’s hollow promise brings to mind similar assurances in notorious cases like Bush v Gore, is inconsistent with how the judicial process works, and wouldn’t offer any solace to anyone who might become pregnant or whose miscarriage might be treated as a crime scene for police to investigate.
The foolishness of the argument that there’s nothing to see here other than the future of abortion law is underscored by some of what is said in its support. We’re told not to worry about the future of decisions like Loving v Virginia, ensuring the right to marry someone of a different race than your own because, after all, Justice Clarence Thomas is in an interracial marriage. We’re told not to worry about the right to same-sex marriage because, after all, Justice Brett Kavanaugh would never vote to overturn Obergefell v Hodges, the most iconic opinion written by his proud mentor, Anthony Kennedy – the man who left the court only after he had hand-picked Kavanaugh as his successor. We’re told not to worry about contraception (despite the way quite a few people view Plan B or IUDs as forms of abortion) because even supreme court nominees like Amy Coney Barrett, who were cagey about just how “settled” a precedent they deemed Roe v Wade, said they couldn’t imagine anybody today challenging Griswold v Connecticut. All that prognostication is cold comfort to the millions of people whose lives are profoundly affected by these shaky predictions.
The most substantial argument is one that is equally fallacious but more sophisticated and in some ways more devious and dangerous: it is the argument that supreme court reversals of precedent, like the reversal of Plessy v Ferguson by Brown v Board of Education, are often to be welcomed as needed course corrections, and that this “course correction” wouldn’t be the first time the supreme court has rolled back decades-old constitutional rights. The many commentators who persisted in describing Alito’s draft in those terms – as an unprecedented retreat in the arc of ever-expanding rights – have recently been denounced as either inexcusably ignorant or deliberately duplicitous by distinguished scholars like Yale’s Akhil Amar, who says that every first-year law student learns that the very same thing happened during FDR’s second term as president, when the supreme court in 1937 in West Coast Hotel v Parrish overturned a long line of decisions that had blocked minimum wage and maximum hours and other worker-protection laws in the name of employers’ rights of “private property” and the “liberty of contract”. To be sure, Amar’s argument echoes that of the Alito draft, which cites Parrish and says, in effect, “nothing to see here, we did the same thing before” when we rolled back the liberty of contract line of decisions in 1937.
Justice Alito and Professor Amar are simply wrong: profoundly so. That so-called (and quite misleadingly labeled) “switch in time that saved the nine” was nothing like the switch that Dobbs would represent. The 1937 “switch” was no sudden politically driven turnabout but was in fact the culmination of long-simmering movements in legal and economic thought – movements that were reflected both in scholarship and in judicial opinions from the earliest days of the 20th century in places like Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ dissent in Lochner v New York insisting that “the 14th amendment does not enact Mr Herbert Spencer’s social statics,” movements that represented the growing conviction that the “freedom” to work at low wages and in miserable conditions was an illusion lacking both moral and legal foundations and one that simply helped perpetuate economic inequality and the exploitation of relatively powerless, not-yet-unionized workers by wealthy and powerful corporations.
Indeed, it is noteworthy that West Coast Hotel v Parrish – the 29 March 1937 decision that is usually marked as the pivot point in the great constitutional upheaval – was handed down by precisely the same set of nine justices as the nine who had rendered a decision pointing in the opposite direction less than a year earlier, on 1 June 1936, in Morehead v New York ex rel Tipaldo. One justice of the nine, a moderate Republican named Owen J Roberts, who had been rethinking his position on the underlying legal theories, had foreshadowed his shifting views by writing a landmark opinion upholding milk price regulation, Nebbia v New York, by a 5-4 vote in 1934 – less than two months after the court had upheld a state mortgage moratorium law by a 5-4 vote in Home Building & Loan Ass’n v Blaisdell, a decision clearly foreshadowing the 1937 repudiation of Lochner’s legacy by reconceiving the meaning of the constitution’s clause forbidding all state impairments of the obligation of contracts.
That history is important to keep in mind if one is to understand the depth of the error made by those who seek to compare the 2022 tsunami that Dobbs would represent with the gradual shift in current represented by the 1937 movement away from liberty of contract to protection of workers and consumers. The head-spinning and altogether untimely switch in the supreme court’s abortion jurisprudence that Dobbs would represent – if the decision the court announces late this June or early July is in substance what the leaked Alito draft indicated it would be – will reflect not the steady maturation of a long-developing jurisprudential movement but the crude payoff to a partisan political program to take over the federal judiciary, one beginning with Ronald Reagan’s presidency and the rise of the Federalist Society, and advancing with supreme court appointments made by Republican presidents all of whom lost the popular vote (George W Bush, appointing Justice Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts; Donald J Trump, appointing Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett), and made in circumstances of dubious legitimacy.
Professor Amar treats as laughably naïve the observation by ACLU national legal director and Georgetown law professor David Cole that, although “Parrish took away some rights of business owners … its real effect was to expand rights protections for millions of Americans subject to exploitation by powerful corporations.” Amar’s rebuttal? He says, and I’m serious here, that it’d be equally legitimate to say that “Dobbs’ real effect would be to expand rights protection for millions of innocent, unborn Americans … unborn humans, subject to extermination by society.”
It’s hard to know where to begin in unraveling that alleged parallel. Suffice it to note that the status as rights-bearing persons of embryos and fetuses remains a matter of profound sectarian controversy in America and throughout the world while no such controversy attends the status as rights-bearing persons of the array of workers whose rights, at least under laws designed to limit economic exploitation if not directly under the constitution itself, were indisputably expanded by virtue of the Parrish decision and the overturning of the Lochner line of cases.
Perhaps no less important is the indisputable fact that, although there remain a few commentators who continue to think that Lochner was rightly decided and Parrish was wrong, there is a nearly universal consensus, certainly covering the ideological spectrum on the current supreme court, that the “rights” protected by Lochner and the other decisions that Parrish tossed into the dustbin of history were not constitutionally sacrosanct, and that inequalities of bargaining power prevented the common-law baseline that Lochner treated as immune to legislative modification from having any special constitutional status. At the same time, the notions of personal autonomy and bodily integrity that provide the constitutional foundation for the substantive “liberty” at stake in cases like Roe and Casey are almost universally accepted as real, although deep disagreements remain about whether, to what degree, and from what point in fetal development the protection of the unborn fetus can properly trump that liberty.
The upshot is that the radical change in law and society that Dobbs would represent truly has no parallel in the history of the supreme court or in the history of the United States. As David Cole writes, the “proper analogy is not Brown overruling Plessy, but a decision reviving Plessy, reversing Brown, and relegating Black people to enforced segregation after nearly 70 years of equal protection.” For, as Jamelle Bouie rightly observed, “equal standing is undermined and eroded when the state can effectively seize your person for its own ends – that is, when it can force you to give birth.” Whether or not one compares that compulsion and forced labor to literal enslavement, as I did in my 1973 article on Roe v Wade, attempts to minimize the huge retrogression this would represent must be dismissed as little more than shameful efforts to camouflage the carnage the supreme court of the United States is about to unleash both on its own legitimacy and, even more important, on the people in whose name it wields the power of judicial review.
Laurence H Tribe is the Carl M Loeb University Professor of Constitutional Law Emeritus at Harvard University, the author of numerous books and articles, a distinguished supreme court advocate, and holder of 11 honorary degrees