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Donald Trump’s justices used 19th century standards to limit rights for women

Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v Wade has made good on the former president’s pledge

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An abortion rights demonstrator dressed in a Handmaid's Tale costume protests outside the United States Supreme Court after Roe v Wade was overturned, in Washington, US, June 24, 2022. Photo: REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

An abortion rights demonstrator dressed in a Handmaid's Tale costume protests outside the United States Supreme Court after Roe v Wade was overturned, in Washington, US, June 24, 2022. Photo: REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

A person carries a cross outside the Supreme Court in Washington. Photo: AP/Steve Helber

A person carries a cross outside the Supreme Court in Washington. Photo: AP/Steve Helber

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An abortion rights demonstrator dressed in a Handmaid's Tale costume protests outside the United States Supreme Court after Roe v Wade was overturned, in Washington, US, June 24, 2022. Photo: REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

In Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organisation, the Supreme Court justices president Donald Trump appointed to reverse Roe have just made good on Trump’s pledge. The decision so dramatically limits women’s constitutional liberties that one can almost hear the chants of “lock her up!” from Trump’s supporters.

On the right, however, the decision is being hailed as a constitutional restoration — a triumph of “originalism” over “living constitutionalism”. Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote the majority opinion, sees himself as restoring constitution as law and cleansing it of politics.

But Dobbs is plainly a political project. Reversing Roe has been the animating goal of the conservative legal movement since it mobilised under the banner of originalism during the Reagan administration. Far from setting aside politics in favour of a neutral interpretation of law, Alito’s decision reveals how conservative judges encode movement goals and values under cover of highly selective historical claims.

Alito’s opinion follows a kind of originalism in tying the 14th Amendment’s meaning to the distant past, even if it doesn’t purport to identify the meaning of the amendment to voters who ratified it. (Roe locates the right to abortion in the liberty guarantee of the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause.)

Rather, Alito follows a case called Washington v Glucksberg (1997) and interprets the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of liberty in light of the nation’s “history and traditions”; according to this view, only rights deeply embedded in that history are protected. And the right to an abortion is not, the majority said last week.

Justice Alito claims tying the meaning of the 14th Amendment’s liberty guarantee to America’s “history and traditions” prevents the justices from imposing their own views on the case.

“In interpreting what is meant by the 14th Amendment’s reference to ‘liberty,’” he writes, “we must guard against the natural human tendency to confuse what that Amendment protects with our own ardent views about the liberty that Americans should enjoy.”

Here he echoes the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote, in Originalism: The Lesser Evil, that looking to history “establishes a historical criterion that is conceptually quite separate from the preferences of the judge himself”.

But Dobbs shows why both of these claims are wrong. A judge’s turn to the historical record can just as easily disguise judicial discretion as constrain it.

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In Dobbs, the Trump court defines the Constitution’s protections for liberty largely with reference to laws enacted in mid-19th-century America, when there was a campaign to ban abortion across the nation. (Alito includes an appendix enumerating many of these state statutes.) But consider what else was part of this period’s “history and traditions”: The law did not protect a wife’s right to control property, earnings, or sex in marriage; states could deny women the right to practise law and states could deny women the right to vote.

Why would the Supreme Court today tether the meaning of the 14th Amendment’s liberty guarantee to laws enacted by men with such a cramped view of women’s rights? The move is unprecedented. To date, the Supreme Court had not read the Constitution’s great commitment to liberty in this time-bound way — for example, in upholding contraceptive rights, the right to interracial marriage and the right to same-sex marriage.

Reading the 14th Amendment’s guarantees in light of evolving understandings of liberty has been so foundational in modern constitutional jurisprudence that even the Glucksberg case on which the court relied for its mandate to consider history and traditions recognises abortion as a protected liberty.

Alito’s account of the nation’s history and traditions is shaped and whitewashed to justify his desired results. His version of the history of abortion laws, for example, deeply discounts the common law of the early republic, which only criminalised abortion after quickening. He also provided an outrageously incomplete account of the mid-century campaign to ban abortion — writing, for instance, that the opposition to abortion reflected in those laws was “sincere”. He therefore excuses himself from considering whether politicians’ views of gender roles, in a period when women were disenfranchised, shaped the campaign to ban abortion, which of course they did.

During the 19th-century campaign against abortion, advocates for laws banning the practice argued that they were necessary to enforce women’s maternal and marital duties and to protect ethno-religious character of the nation. Claims about protecting unborn life were not free-standing as Alito claims, but deeply entangled with constitutionally suspect judgments.

Alito evades a fundamental question: Why should 19th-century anti-abortion laws limit the ways we understand the Constitution’s liberty guarantee any more than the history and traditions of segregation limit the way we understand the Constitution’s equality guarantee? There is no good reason. The problem with anchoring the meaning of our commitments to this past, as Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan put it succinctly in dissent, is that “the men who ratified the 14th Amendment and wrote the state laws of the time did not view women as full and equal citizens.” Do those justices who joined the Dobbs majority? Apparently not.

They thought it reasonable to allow states to coerce women on the basis of laws enacted during a period when women were wholly disfranchised. And they signed on to an opinion in which a body of decisions and laws written by white men was presented as representing America’s history and traditions, without a single woman’s voice represented; and those traditions were sufficient to justify stripping women today of a half century of constitutional rights. This is not an account of history that is “conceptually quite separate from the preferences of the judge himself”. It is history that expresses judicial preferences as the nation’s traditions.

Outside the statute books, there is plenty of evidence that Americans in the 19th century demanded autonomy in decisions about parenthood — passionately expressed in the abolitionist and woman’s suffrage movements. Women may not have had the authority to vote, but they certainly had views about the importance of voluntary motherhood. If the Supreme Court wants to tie the meaning of liberty to the nation’s “history and traditions”, it needs to include the voices of the disfranchised, unless it means to perpetuate their disempowerment as part of our present Constitution.

The justices who decided Dobbs scoff at “living constitutionalism”, but employ history and tradition toward living-constitutionalist ends. The justices’ efforts to hide their views about abortion in a story about the Constitution’s history and traditions reveals to us their view of women.

Reva Siegel is Nicholas deB Katzenbach professor at Yale Law School

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