Fourteenth Amendment Unenumerated Rights Jurisprudence: An Essay in Response to Stenberg V. Carhart

By Smolin, David M. | Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Fourteenth Amendment Unenumerated Rights Jurisprudence: An Essay in Response to Stenberg V. Carhart


Smolin, David M., Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy


In one of his last opinions before retiring, Chief Justice Warren Burger acknowledged that the soundness of Roe v. Wade(1) "must be tested by the decisions that purport to follow [it]."(2) Declaring that the Court "should reexamine Roe,"(3) Burger found it astonishing that the Court had rejected a requirement that a second physician be present during the abortion of a viable fetus, given Roe's finding of a compelling governmental interest in the life of a viable fetus. He also objected to the Court's invalidation of informed consent and parental notification regulations. The Chief Justice claimed that that while the Roe Court had clearly rejected the right to abortion on demand, post-Roe decisions had implemented a policy encouraging abortion as a positive good.(4) Thus, while Burger joined Justice Blackmun's majority opinion in Roe,(5) he dissented from Justice Blackmun's majority opinion in Thornburgh v. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.(6)

Six years later in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Court, sans Burger, was closely divided over the continued soundness of Roe.(7) Four Justices explicitly argued that Roe should be overruled,(8) while two Justices argued that Roe should be reaffirmed and applied in the absolutist manner Burger had found so objectionable.(9) Justices Kennedy, O'Connor, and Souter, who authored the decisive joint opinion, claimed to be reaffirming the essential core of Roe while removing from it, and from the post-Roe decisions, the absolutist elements.(10) The joint opinion purported to accord respect to the relevant state interests, and thus claimed a willingness to uphold abortion regulations so long as the core right of a woman to decide whether or not to abort a non-viable fetus was not violated.

In Stenberg v. Carhart,(11) Justice Kennedy played the role of Chief Justice Burger. Kennedy, like Burger before him, complained that the moderate decision he joined was misapplied by the majority to invalidate minimalist abortion regulations. Somehow, the moderate Casey precedent was used to justify the more encompassing Stenberg decision.(12) While Justice Kennedy has not yet called for a reexamination of Roe or Casey, his Stenberg dissent forcefully expressed a sense of betrayal and even moral revulsion regarding the majority's interpretation of Casey.

Chief Justice Burger's belief that a precedent must be judged -- and understood -- by the opinions that apply it should be taken seriously. Therefore, it is appropriate to examine why the Roe and Casey doctrines have been expanded to the point where both relevant state interests and traditional rules of constitutional adjudication are now completely submerged. This pattern has not developed randomly, but instead arose from medical, cultural, and psychological factors inherent in the abortion liberty. Particularly because the joint opinion in Casey avoided a reexamination of the abortion liberty by arbitrarily invoking the principle of stare decisis,(13) the Court should engage in a thorough analysis of the nature and structure of abortion liberty in future cases.

The Supreme Court's abortion jurisprudence has developed as a part of the broader doctrines of substantive due process and the right of privacy. The question of unenumerated rights posed by these doctrines goes to the heart of the Court's role within our system of government, and can raise troubling issues as to the legitimacy of the Court's decisions. It is one thing for the Court, following the theory of Marbury v. Madison,(14) to invalidate legislation found to be in clear violation of an explicit constitutional command; it is quite another for the Court to claim the authority to invalidate legislation based on rights not mentioned in the Constitution. Unless such unenumerated rights can be firmly grounded in the overall text, structure, history, principles, or jurisprudence of the Constitution, their use to invalidate legislation can appear illegitimate. …

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