In Gonzales v. Carhart, the Supreme Court, in a five-to-four decision, upheld the constitutionality of a federal law prohibiting so-called “partial birth abortions” (properly described as “intact dilation and evacuation” or “intact D & E”) despite the absence of an exception to protect the health of the woman. Gonzales reversed an earlier decision, Stenberg v. Carhart, in which the Court had held a virtually identical state law unconstitutional, primarily because it failed to include an exception to protect the health of the woman.
In the majority’s view, the critical difference was that in enacting the federal law Congress made several findings to support the legislation. The majority accepted those findings even though, as Justice Ginsburg observed in an unusually scathing dissent, those findings were nothing more than political nonsense.
Among Congress’s clearly erroneous “findings” were its assertions that no medical schools provide instruction on intact D & E, that intact D & E is never necessary to safeguard the health of the woman, and that intact D & E is less safe than alternative procedures. Each of these “findings” was and is false. In fact, many laws schools, including Chicago, Northwestern, Yale, Columbia, teach intact D & E; there is a clear medical consensus that in particular circumstances intact D & E is necessary to protect the heath of the woman; and there is a clear medical consensus that in particular circumstances intact D & E is safer than the alternative procedures.
It is not unusual for the Supreme Court to give deference even to implausible legislative findings. But the findings must at least be rational and, when a law restricts a fundamental constitutional right, the findings must be almost unimpeachable. In this instance, every federal court that reviewed these congressional findings rightly described them unreasonable, unbalanced, polemical, and unsupported by the facts.
The five justices in the majority in Gonzales have put at risk the health of women who suffer from heart disease, uterine scarring, bleeding disorders, compromised immune systems, and certain pregnancy-related conditions, such as placenta previa and accreta, as well as those women carrying fetuses with certain abnormalities, such as severe hydocephalus. In all of these circumstances, and many others, the use of the intact D & E is necessary to ensure the health of the woman.
It is important to note that the prohibition of intact D & E has nothing to do with preserving the life of a fetus. The “partial birth abortion” law does not prohibit any abortions. Rather, it prohibits only a particular means of performing abortions. If the woman is willing to undergo a greater than necessary risk to her health, she may terminate her pregnancy by other, less safe, methods. She may, for example, have the fetus terminated by injection prior to extraction, or removed by cesarean, or extracted by non-intact D & E (which involves dismembering the fetus in utero).
What, then, explains this decision? Here is a painfully awkward observation: All five justices in the majority in Gonzales are Catholic. The four justices who are either Protestant or Jewish all voted in accord with settled precedent. It is mortifying to have to point this out. But it is too obvious, and too telling, to ignore. Ultimately, the five justices in the majority all fell back on a common argument to justify their position. There is, they say, a compelling moral reason for the result in Gonzales. Because the intact D & E seems to resemble infanticide it is “immoral” and may be prohibited even without a clear statutory exception to protect the health of the woman.
By making this judgment, these justices have failed to respect the fundamental difference between religious belief and morality. To be sure, this can be an elusive distinction, but in a society that values the separation of church and state, it is fundamental. The moral status of a fetus is a profoundly difficult and rationally unresolvable question. As the Supreme Court has recognized for more than thirty years, when the fundamental right of a woman “to determine her life’s course” is at stake, it is not for the state -- or for the justices of the Supreme Court -- to resolve that question, and it is certainly not appropriate for the state or the justices to resolve it on the basis of one’s personal religious faith.
In 1972-73, I had the privilege of serving as a law clerk to Justice William Brennan, then the Court’s only Catholic justice. It was in that year the Court decided Roe v. Wade. Justice Brennan struggled in that case, as he struggled in earlier cases involving such issues as school prayers, to separate his personal religious views from his views as a justice. He joined the decision in Roe because he believed in the separation of church and state and because he was convinced that his religious views must be irrelevant to his responsibilities as a justice.
As the Court observed fifteen years ago, “Some of us as individuals find abortion offensive to our most basic principles of morality, but than cannot control our decision. Our obligation is to define the liberty of all, not to mandate our own moral code.” It is sad that Justices Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas and Alito have chosen not to follow this example.