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On Roe v. Wade



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This Sunday marks the 39th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s tragically wrong decision in Roe v. Wade. I will use this occasion to reiterate some elementary points:

As I stated in my 2005 Senate Judiciary Committee testimony:

Roe v. Wade marks the second time in American history that the Supreme Court has invoked “substantive due process” to deny American citizens the authority to protect the basic rights of an entire class of human beings. The first time, of course, was the Court’s infamous 1857 decision in the Dred Scott case (Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857)). There, the Court held that the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which prohibited slavery in the northern portion of the Louisiana Territories, could not constitutionally be applied to persons who brought their slaves into free territory. Such a prohibition, the Court nakedly asserted, “could hardly be dignified with the name of due process.” Id. at 450. Thus were discarded the efforts of the people, through their representatives, to resolve politically and peacefully the greatest moral issue of their age. Chief Justice Taney and his concurring colleagues thought that they were conclusively resolving the issue of slavery. Instead, they only made all the more inevitable the Civil War that erupted four years later.

Roe is the Dred Scott of our age. Like few other Supreme Court cases in our nation’s history, Roe is not merely patently wrong but also fundamentally hostile to core precepts of American government and citizenship. Roe is a lawless power grab by the Supreme Court, an unconstitutional act of aggression by the Court against the political branches and the American people. Roe prevents all Americans from working together, through an ongoing process of peaceful and vigorous persuasion, to establish and revise the policies on abortion governing our respective states. Roe imposes on all Americans a radical regime of unrestricted abortion for any reason all the way up to viability—and, under the predominant reading of sloppy language in Roe’s companion case, Doe v. Bolton, essentially unrestricted even in the period from viability until birth. Roe fuels endless litigation in which pro-abortion extremists challenge modest abortion-related measures that state legislators have enacted and that are overwhelmingly favored by the public—provisions, for example, seeking to ensure informed consent and parental involvement for minors and barring atrocities like partial-birth abortion. Roe disenfranchises the millions and millions of patriotic American citizens who believe that the self-evident truth proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence—that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with an unalienable right to life—warrants significant governmental protection of the lives of unborn human beings.

Thirty-nine years is a long time, but it’s still well short of the 58 years that it took the Supreme Court to overturn its decision in Plessy v. Ferguson. The Court had a clear opportunity to set things straight twenty years ago in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, but it badly bungled it. (See This Day entry for June 29, 1992.) Ignoring the fact that it was Roe that ignited the “national division” on abortion, the five-Justice majority in Casey “call[ed] the contending sides [on abortion] to end their national division by accepting” what it implausibly claimed was “a common mandate rooted in the Constitution.” But twenty years later, the abortion issue remains as contentious and divisive as ever.

If the American people are going to be permitted to exercise their authority as citizens, then all Americans, whatever their views on abortion, should recognize that the Supreme Court’s unconstitutional power grab on this issue must end and that the political issue of whether and how to regulate abortions should be returned where it belongs—to the people and to the political processes in the states.



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