Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Monday, October 14, 2019

A Recipe for Overruling Roe v. Wade 3/

In a couple of posts last week, I began to introduce a three-ingredient recipe for overruling Roe v. Wade. The first post identified the three ingredients: Prenatal Equal Protection, Judicial Incapacity, and Catholic Guilt. The second post discussed Prenatal Equal Protection. This post continues by discussing the ingredient of Judicial Incapacity.

Consideration of this ingredient begins with what Peter Westen has labeled "The Empty Idea of Equality." By "equality," Westen means the basic principles that "people who are alike should be treated alike" and "people who are unalike should be treated unalike." When we ask how people should be treated, the question then becomes in what respects they are like and what respects they are unalike. Some of the ways in which people are unalike matter in considering how they are to be treated.

In his article, Westen sought to establish that statements of equality entail and collapse into simpler statements of rights, and that transforming the simpler statements of rights into statements of equality is unnecessarily complicated and engenders confusion. One need not accept all the particulars of Westen's use of rights to appreciate the force of his claim that equality is a formal concept, a way of stating moral and legal propositions whose substance derives from more fundamental judgments.

Once we recognize that "person" as used in the Fourteenth Amendment is not limited to postnatal human beings, we next have to determine what it means for a state to provide to unborn persons within its jurisdiction "the equal protection of the laws." At a minimum, this means not treating the unborn as non-persons. But it does not mean treating them identically to the born in all respects. Nor does it mean categorically prohibiting the intentional taking of their lives. As self-defense against lethal violence is a justification more generally in the law, a state does not run afoul of its equal protection duty through declining to criminalize or by providing an affirmative defense for abortions performed to save the life of the mother. 

What about other types of limitations on the reach of criminal abortion laws? Right now, a two-drug combination can be used to induce medication abortions. This two-drug combination is approved by the FDA , with certain limitations, through ten weeks of pregnancy. Suppose a state decides not to criminalize medication abortion because of enforcement- and privacy-related concerns. Would this amount to a denial of the equal protection of the laws to unborn persons ten weeks and under? In one sense, yes, and in another sense, no. The answer depends on whether the reasons the state has for structuring its laws the way that it has are good enough reasons. And an appeal to the formal ideal of equality will not help in answering that question.

It could provide a baseline of sorts, a presumption that the difference in location between born and unborn persons is not itself a justification for differential treatment. But once we move beyond that baseline and allow for the potential relevance of factors such as enforcement-related concerns, maternal-safety concerns, and so on, any doctrinal implementation of the equal protection of the laws by judges should be informed by their very limited capacity for making judgments of this sort. That is why the default standard for judicial review of legislative classifications is rational basis review.

Both proponents and opponents of acknowledging the Fourteenth Amendment of personhood have often assumed that this acknowledgment would have obvious consequences for the substantive content of the law--either that all abortion must be criminalized with rules equivalent to those governing infanticide (because of personhood plus equal protection or personhood plus right to life) or that all questions about abortion are simply a matter of state policy judgment as modified by judicial overlay through substantive due process for mothers (because the Fourteenth Amendment does not protect the unborn as persons). But even if we stop treating the unborn as constitutional zeroes when it comes to personhood, there is ample room for a variety of reasonable legislative judgments about abortion regulation compatible with recognition of the personhood of the unborn.

This recognition would rule out some of the most radical state-law regimes that authorize the taking of unborn life all the way through pregnancy based on the unreviewed decision of one physician and one mother for any reason. And this recognition would also require a reorientation of the law that requires a justification for differential protection of the laws for the born and unborn. But this reorientation would not change the judicial incapacity for making value judgments on the relative weights of justifications that underlies rational basis as the doctrinal default in this area.


Walsh, Kevin | Permalink