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Exposing the Underground Establishment Clause in the Supreme Court’s Abortion Cases


Justin S. Murray


Georgetown University Law Center

November 14, 2009


Abstract:     
In Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court held that women have a constitutional right to abortion based on the Due Process Clause. To arrive at this conclusion, the Court implicitly relied on concepts that properly belong to the Establishment Clause - in particular, the Establishment Clause requirement that all laws must be supported by secular purposes, not religious ones. This Article is the first attempt to describe and critically evaluate the Court’s use of Establishment Clause ideas in Roe and later abortion cases.

Some brief background is essential in order to grasp the structure and significance of the underlying Establishment Clause dynamic of Roe. The Due Process Clause allows the government to restrict fundamental constitutional liberties (such as abortion) if it has a compelling reason for doing so. States have defended their abortion laws by arguing that protecting unborn human life against homicide is a compelling reason to restrict abortion. This argument, advanced in Roe, directly presented the Supreme Court with the question of whether fetuses are human beings entitled to protection against homicide.

The Court, however, refused to answer the question and provided a convoluted, ambiguous explanation for its refusal. Careful interpretation of these ambiguous passages reveals the Court’s underlying concern that neither the judiciary nor the legislature may decide the question of fetal humanity because it is a controversial religious question. When the Court’s rationale is clarified and plainly stated in this way, it becomes clear that Roe’s method of analysis - rejecting the state’s interest not because it is false or unimportant, but because it is religious and therefore an inappropriate basis for political judgment - is identical to the Establishment Clause requirement that legislation must be based on a secular purpose.

However, the Court’s analysis is problematic, because Establishment Clause principles are consistent with governmental protection of fetal life. The humanity of the fetus can be plausibly supported, not only on religious grounds, but also on the secular grounds of philosophical, historical, and experiential reasoning. To be clear, I do not argue that these secular grounds prove beyond dispute that fetuses are human beings. Instead, I defend the more modest proposition that a debatable secular case can be made for viewing fetuses as human beings. This conclusion is not strong enough to justify criminalization or restriction of abortion (which is beyond the scope of this Article), but it does prove that such criminalization or restriction would not violate the Establishment Clause. Thus, the Court should revisit the fundamental question that it evaded in Roe and later cases: is the fetus a human being, such that legislatures have a compelling interest in protecting fetal life against abortion?

Number of Pages in PDF File: 81

Keywords: abortion, establishment clause, constitutional law, constitution, secular purpose, lemon test, separation of church and state, roe, casey, stenberg, gonzales

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Date posted: November 14, 2009 ; Last revised: December 8, 2009

Suggested Citation

Murray, Justin S., Exposing the Underground Establishment Clause in the Supreme Court’s Abortion Cases (November 14, 2009). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1506050 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1506050

Contact Information

Justin Scott Murray (Contact Author)
Georgetown University Law Center ( email )
600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States
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