Justice Lewis F. Powell's Baffling Vote in Roe v. Wade

44 Pages Posted: 6 Jun 2014 Last revised: 14 Jun 2014

See all articles by Samuel Wolfe Calhoun

Samuel Wolfe Calhoun

Washington and Lee University - School of Law

Date Written: June 4, 2014


This article explores Justice Powell’s vote with the majority in Roe v. Wade. The piece builds upon the unissued 1970 abortion opinion of Judge Henry J. Friendly, who, although personally pro-choice, concluded that the Fourteenth Amendment does not require abortion freedom. The article also presents research from the Powell Archives at Washington and Lee University School of Law.

On its face, Powell’s Roe vote is perplexing due to its inconsistency with his stated philosophy of judicial restraint. Various explanations have been offered, including arguments that a constitutionally protected abortion right is justified (1) as a logical extension of Griswold v. Connecticut, which accorded privacy protection to contraceptive use within marriage; (2) by its “appeal to the future,” i.e., Roe merely expedited the result the country was already steadily approaching; and (3) by empathy for women facing unwanted pregnancies. None of these justifications satisfactorily aligns with Powell’s view of the judicial role. His vote therefore remains baffling.

Justice Powell’s deviation from his own declared principles of restraint is particularly problematic in the context of abortion, perhaps the most intractable legal, religious, moral, and public policy controversy of the last century. Not only did Roe, through an unjustifiably expansive conception of the judicial function, disarm one side politically in this hotly contested dispute, but in doing so the Court also endorsed the other side’s position in the underlying moral debate. Powell’s vote therefore regrettably, but unavoidably, tarnishes his legacy as a proponent of restraint.

Keywords: Powell, Roe v. Wade, Abortion, SCOTUS, Lewis Powell, Henry Friendly, Powell Roe, Powell Abortion, Judicial Restraint, Powell Judicial Restraint, Friendly Abortion

JEL Classification: K10, K30, K32

Suggested Citation

Calhoun, Samuel Wolfe, Justice Lewis F. Powell's Baffling Vote in Roe v. Wade (June 4, 2014). 71 Wash. & Lee L. Rev. 925 ( 2014), Washington & Lee Legal Studies Paper No. 2014-14, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2446028

Samuel Wolfe Calhoun (Contact Author)

Washington and Lee University - School of Law ( email )

Lexington, VA 24450
United States

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