Requiem for the Supreme Court

That’s the title of an article by Linda Greenhouse, the longtime observer of the Supreme Court for the New York Times. She writes:

They did it because they could.

It was as simple as that.

Greenhouse is no firebrand, but she concludes that the Court’s reactionaries have destroyed “the legitimacy of the Court”.

The title of Jill Filipovic’s article for The Guardian is “Itโ€™s time to say it: the US supreme court has become an illegitimate institution”. She writes:

As of 24 June 2022, the US Supreme Courtย should officially be understood as an illegitimate institution โ€“ a tool of minority rule over the majority, and as part of a far-right ideological and authoritarian takeover that must be snuffed out if we want American democracy to survive.

On Friday, in Dobbs v Jackson Womenโ€™s Health, the supreme court overruled its nearly 50-year precedent of Roe v Wade, the 1973 case that legalized abortion nationwide. It is difficult to overstate just how devastating this is for pregnant people, for women as a class and for anyone with even a passing interest in individual freedom and equality.

But itโ€™s also devastating for those of us who care quite a bit about American democratic traditions and the strength of our institutions. Because, with this ruling, the Supreme Court has just signaled its illegitimacy โ€“ and it throws much of the American project into question. Which means that Democrats and others who want to see America endure as a representative democracy need to act.

Of the nine justices sitting on the current court, five โ€“ all of them in the majority opinion that overturned Roe โ€“ were appointed by presidents who initially lost the popular vote; the three appointed by D____ T____ were confirmed by senators who represent a minority of Americans. A majority of this court, in other words, were not appointed by a process that is representative of the will of the American people.

Two were appointed via starkly undemocratic means, put in place by bad actors willing to change the rules to suit their needs. Neil Gorsuch only has his seat because Republicans, led by Mitch McConnell, blocked the ability of Barack Obama to nominate Merrick Garland โ€“ or anyone โ€“ to a supreme court seat, claiming that, because it was an election year, voters should get to decide.

And then D____ T____ appointed Amy Coney Barrett in a radically rushed and incomplete, incoherent process โ€“ in an election year.

And now, this court, stacked with far-right judges appointed via ignoble means, has stripped from American women the right to control our own bodies. They have summarily placed women into a novel category of person with fewer rights not just than other people, but than fertilized eggs…. After all, no one else is forced to donate their organs for the survival of another โ€“ not parents to their children, not the dead to the living. It is only fertilized eggs, embryos and fetuses that are newly entitled to this right to use anotherโ€™s body and organs against that otherโ€™s will; it is only women and other people who can get pregnant who are now subject to these unparalleled, radical demands.

This raises a fundamental question: can a country be properly understood as a democracy โ€“ an entity in which government derives its power from the people โ€“ if it subjugates half of its population, putting them into a category of sub-person with fewer rights, freedoms and liberties?

The global trend suggests that the answer to that is no. A clear pattern has emerged in the past few decades: as countries democratize, they tend to liberalize womenโ€™s rights, and they expand abortion and other reproductive rights. Luckily for the women of the world, this is where a great many nations are moving.

But the reverse is also true: as a smaller number of countries move toward authoritarian governance, they constrict the rights of women, LGBT people and many minority groups. We have seen this in every country that has scaled back abortion rights, reproductive rights, and womenโ€™s rights more broadly in the past several years: Russia, Hungary, Poland, Nicaragua and the United States.

The same week that the Supreme Court issued its decision in Dobbs, the US House of Representatives has been holding hearings to inform the public about what actually happened during the attempted coup of 6 January 2021, and to ideally hold perpetrators, traitors and seditionists to account. We are only a year and a half past that disgraceful day, when an angry mob decided that they, an authoritarian, patriarchal, white supremacist minority, should rule โ€“ that any other outcome, no matter how free and fair the election, was illegitimate.

The Supreme Court decision stems from that same rotted root: the idea that a patriarchal minority should have nearly unlimited authority over the majority. The [reactionaries] on the court rightly understand that individual rights and womenโ€™s freedoms are incompatible with a system of broad male control over women and children, and a broader male monopoly on the public, political and economic spheres.

But that authoritarian vision is also incompatible with democracy.

And so Democrats now have a choice. They can give speeches and send fundraising emails. Or they can act: declare this court illegitimate. Demand its expansion. Abolish the filibuster. Treat this like the emergency it is, and make America a representative democracy.

Remember the 9th Amendment: The Legal Basis for Roe v. Wade

The first ten amendments to the US Constitution are known as the Bill of Rights. We’ve all heard of the 1st amendment (free speech, separation of church and state, etc.), the 2nd amendment (we can own muskets in case the British come back) and the 5th (what you can “take” when they ask you an embarrassing question). But hardly anyone knows about the 9th amendment. We should though, because this is what it says:

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

This amendment made obvious sense, since it would have been impossible for the authors of the Constitution to list every right people have (e.g. the right to brush your teeth, the right to hold stupid opinions, the right not to watch college basketball in March). And some obvious rights are hardly worth mentioning, like the right to make important decisions for yourself or the right to privacy in the conduct of your daily affairs.

Yet certain members of the Supreme Court, all of whom went to law school, are forgetting about this particular amendment (even though it’s been around since 1789).

I have no legal training.ย I haven’t read the 1973 opinion in Roe v. Wade or the 1992 opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the two principal cases in which the Supreme Court decided that women should usually be able to end their pregnancies. I haven’t read this week’s draft opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health either. That’s the opinion that will overturn Roe and Casey if it becomes official. It’s also the opinion that would theoretically allow a future Congress to make abortion illegal in the whole country.

Yet most people would agree that if a woman can find a doctor who’s willing and able to perform a recognized medical procedure and the woman has the necessary health insurance or can afford to get it done, whether or not she has the procedure is nobody else’s business. Whether that’s because all of us have a right to privacy, a right to make important decisions for ourselves or a right to control our own bodies doesn’t make any difference. None of this should be controversial.

The five most reactionary Catholics on the Supreme Court apparently think it is. They don’t see any mention of abortion in the Constitution. They don’t see any specific reference to personal privacy. On that basis, they think it’s fine for the government to interfere with a woman’s decision to end her pregnancy.

But I’m wondering why the hell a woman shouldn’t be allowed to end a pregnancy if she wants to.

The only reasonable basis for controversy is that fertilized eggs often turn into fetuses and fetuses often turn into babies. It’s “often”, because maybe two-thirds of fertilized eggs don’t result in a birth (one study says it’s more like 50%, but it’s still a significant percentage). That’s not because of abortions; it’s because of the vagaries of human physiology. Pregnancy is a complex process and things often go wrong.

But assuming all goes well, pregnancy usually lasts around 40 weeks (the normal range being between 37 and 42 weeks). There is no point at which a fetus officially becomes a “baby”; doctors call it a “fetus” until it’s born. But doctors typically consider 24 weeks to be the point of potential viability, when an infant can theoretically survive outside the womb. Sadly, for “extreme pre-term” infants, survival isn’t guaranteed at all.

There was no way in 1973 for the Supreme Court to set an exact limit on when abortions are allowed. The only question was where to put the rough limit. They didn’t want to make it too soon or too late. Too soon would interfere with a woman’s right not to become a mother. Too late would interfere with an imminent birth. So the majority on the Court decided that women have a right to end their pregnancy until the fetus can survive outside the womb. Medical science said that this “potential viability” occurs after 24 to 28 weeks of pregnancy.

The Los Angeles Times quotes a law professor who points out that when Roe v. Wade was decided, โ€œthere was no Republican-Democrat divide on abortion. In a poll taken shortly before [the decision], 68% of Republicans and 58% of Democrats said the decision to have an abortion should be made by a woman and her physician” (the Democratic percentage was probably lower because Catholics tended to be Democrats back then).

So, after Roe v. Wade, states made laws allowing abortions before viability; some more conservative states specified 20 weeks. Today, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, “abortions at or after 21 weeks are uncommon, and represent [only] 1% of all abortions in the US”. According to US News,ย 94% of abortions are performed at or before 13 weeks.

Unfortunately, Roe v. Wade was the catalyst for the Christian Right to get involved in politics. They got organized and argued that a fetus has a right to be born, even if it’s a day old. They have the right to hold that opinion (see the 9th amendment). The issue is whether that opinion should be made into law. If they really think all fetuses are people and all abortions are murder, all abortions should be illegal. Whether the woman was raped shouldn’t be an exception. Whether she was made pregnant by her brother or father shouldn’t be. Not even the mother’s life should be an exception, since, given the choice between saving the life of a mother and her baby, most of us would want the baby to survive.

If you take the 9th amendment seriously, however, we all have rights not mentioned in the Constitution. Among those rights are the right to privacy as we go about our lives, the right to control our bodies and what’s inside them, and the right to make our own decisions. Rights do conflict, but there’s no doubt that we should be free from government interference most of the time. Getting pregnant is a normal part of women’s lives. Deciding not to be pregnant is also normal. Seeking and receiving the kind of care modern medicine can provide is normal as well. The government should try not to interfere in such cases. The five most reactionary members of the Supreme Court — all of whom claim to love freedom — should understand that and leave Roe v. Wade alone.