Indeed, the fetus is the indisputable star of the Dobbs opinion. That is not necessarily obvious at first reading: The opinion’s 79 pages are larded with lengthy and, according to knowledgeable historians, highly partial and substantially irrelevant accounts of the history of abortion’s criminalization. In all those pages, there is surprisingly little actual law. And women, as I have observed before, are all but missing. It is in paragraphs scattered throughout the opinion that the fetus shines.
“None of the other decisions cited by Roe” and Planned Parenthood of Pennsylvania v. Casey, the 1992 ruling that reaffirmed the right to abortion, “involved the critical moral question posed by abortion,” Justice Alito wrote. “They are therefore inapposite.” Further on, he wrote: “The dissent has much to say about the effects of pregnancy on women, the burdens of motherhood, and the difficulties faced by poor women. These are important concerns. However, the dissent evinces no similar regard for a state’s interest in protecting prenatal life.”
This was a strange criticism of the dissenting opinion, signed jointly by Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. They argued vigorously for retaining the 1992 Casey decision, which in fact, in a departure from Roe, declared that the state’s interest in fetal life was present from the moment of conception. Casey authorized the states to impose waiting periods and “informed consent” requirements that the court in the years following Roe v. Wade had deemed unconstitutional.
Justice Alito knows the Casey decision very well. As a federal appeals court judge, he had been a member of the panel that upheld most of Pennsylvania’s Abortion Control Act in the case that became Casey. Then-Judge Alito, alone on the panel, wanted to uphold a provision of the state law that required a married woman to inform her husband of her plan to get an abortion. In affirming the appeals court’s decision, the Supreme Court in Casey emphasized in one of the opinion’s most vivid passages the unconstitutional burden that the spousal notice requirement placed on women: “We must not blind ourselves to the fact that the significant number of women who fear for their safety and the safety of their children are likely to be deterred from procuring an abortion as surely as if the Commonwealth had outlawed abortion in all cases.” Perhaps that aspect of the Casey decision still rankled. In any event, Justice Alito’s attack on his dissenting colleagues for ignoring the state’s interest in fetal life was seriously misguided.
Of course, from his point of view, Casey didn’t go far enough because the weight the court gave to fetal life was well below 100 percent. The Casey decision was five days shy of 30 years old when the court overturned it, along with Roe v. Wade, on June 24. Given that this was their goal from the start, the justices in the Dobbs majority really had only one job: to explain why. They didn’t, and given the remaining norms of a secular society, they couldn’t.
There is another norm, too, one that has for too long restrained the rest of us from calling out the pervasive role that religion is playing on today’s Supreme Court. In recognition that it is now well past time to challenge that norm, I’ll take my own modest step and relabel Dobbs for the religion case that it is, since nothing else explains it.