Public Comment

Overturning Roe v. Wade: The Prospects?

Harry Brill
Sunday July 22, 2018 - 10:44:00 AM

Will the Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade? Of course the job of the prophet is far more difficult than the job of the historian. So until that decision is made it seems that the majority vote could go either way. For those who support the right of women to have abortions, there are reasons to be both hopeful and worried. Consider the 1973 Supreme Court decision, when the justices approved the right to abortion. Surprisingly, among the seven out of nine justices that voted in favor of abortion, five were Republican appointed justices. Moreover, four of these five justices were conservatives! They did so despite the strong opposition of the Catholic Church. 

The Supreme Court almost twenty years later, in 1992, reconsidered Roe v. Wade. The court voted to reaffirm the right of women to have an abortion. Three of the justices who voted to affirm Roe v. Wade were appointed by Republican presidents. Two of the Justices, who were chosen by Ronald Reagan, had been critical of Roe v. Wade. But it was a close vote of five to four. Actually, the original informal count was five to four to abolish Roe v. Wade. But one of the justices, Anthony Kennedy, got cold feet and changed his mind at the last moment. Although Roe v. Wade was saved by a majority vote the number of judges who voted in 1992 to retain Roe and Wade has declined since 1973 by two votes (from 7 to 5 votes in favor). 

Among the reasons that Roe v. Wade is still alive is that public opinion probably played a role. On many political issues, one sector of the public often benefits at the expense of another sector. However, the right to abortion serves the interests of virtually all members of the public regardless of class, race, and ethnicity. According to a recent Gallup poll, nearly two thirds of Americans want Roe v. Wade to stand. Only thirteen percent of Democrats favor repealing the decision. Also a small percentage of Independents oppose the right to abortion. Although most Republicans support abolishing Roe v. Wade, it is by a very slim majority of fifty-one percent. So even a substantial number of Republicans oppose eliminating the right of women to have an abortion.  

It can be argued that public opinion is irrelevant. After all, since these judges enjoy lifetime appointments, they are politically invulnerable. However, their interests are not only personal. As members of a political party, many are likely to be concerned with the larger political implications of their decisions. Overturning the right to an abortion can adversely impact the Republican Party. Over forty percent of voters claim that they are more likely to vote for a candidate who supports abortion services. In other words, the decision of the Supreme Court could have a spillover effect. In particular, a vote to overturn Roe v. Wade could benefit the Democratic Party at the expense of the Republicans. 

But those justices who have a strong ideological position, such as a commitment to the beliefs of the Catholic Church, may not be moved by pragmatic considerations. In fact, President Trump's nominee of Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court is a religious Catholic who was schooled by Jesuits. As a D.C. appeals court judge, he was the only justice to vote against allowing a pregnant 17-year-old girl who was here illegally to have an abortion. If his Catholicism will mainly shape how he votes on Roe v. Wade, which seems very likely, shouldn't he recuse himself from voting on this issue? h About how the justices will eventually vote on Roe v. Wade. we have been surprised before and may be surprised again. Admittedly, the control of the Supreme Court by the undemocratic majority makes the task of retaining Roe v. Wade very difficult. Nevertheless, It is immensely important to convey to the Supreme Court that it would be unconscionable and unreasonable for a handful of justices to violate the democratic rights of millions of Americans.