The Court’s Morality Play: The Punishment Lens, Sex, and Abortion

48 Pages Posted: 6 Jan 2023 Last revised: 6 Mar 2023

See all articles by June Carbone

June Carbone

University of Minnesota - Twin Cities - School of Law

Naomi Cahn

University of Virginia School of Law

Date Written: January 6, 2023


The Article uncovers the hidden framework for the Supreme Court’s approach to public values, a framework that has shaped – and will continue to shape – the abortion debate. The Court has historically used a “punishment lens” to allow the evolution of moral expression in the public square, without enmeshing the Court itself in the underlying values debate. The punishment lens allows a court to redirect attention by focusing on the penalty rather than the potentially inflammatory subject for which the penalty is being imposed, regardless of whether the subject is contraception, abortion, gay sex, Medicaid expansion, or pretrial detention.

The Article is unique in discussing the circumstances in which the Court has simultaneously concluded that the state could regulate but could not punish, even if that means redefining a sanction as not punitive. By making visible this framework, we offer the Court and the states a potential off-ramp from the continuation of an ugly and litigious future on abortion access. If the Supreme Court seeks to deflect the outrage over Dobbs, the simplest way to do so would be to take seriously the statement that all it has to do is to return the issue to the states. In that case, the Court’s focus should be, as Justice Kavanaugh suggested in his concurrence, on the impermissibility of punishment that infringes on established rights, independent of a right to abortion, such as the right to travel, the First Amendment right to communicate accurate information about abortion availability, or doctors’ efforts to perform therapeutic abortions necessary to preserve a pregnant person’s health. The Court would not pass judgment on the permissibility of abortion, and it could affirm the propriety of state bans, but still strike down heavy-handed prosecutions and ill-defined prohibitions that impose undue penalties.

After Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, this Article is particularly important for three reasons. First, the Article examines the ways in which the Court has used considerations of punishment to deflect irreconcilable values clashes. Second, a focus on punishment often illuminates the “dark side” of government action, justifying limits on such actions. Third, a focus on “punishment” often illustrates the consequences of government actions, consequences that may be an indirect result of statutes or regulations but that have disproportionate effects on marginalized communities. Understanding how the Court has used this elusive concept in the past may thus help shape the response to Dobbs.

Keywords: Dobbs, federalism, criminal law, constitutional law, family law, gender, reproductive rights, feminist legal theory

Suggested Citation

Carbone, June and Cahn, Naomi R., The Court’s Morality Play: The Punishment Lens, Sex, and Abortion (January 6, 2023). Southern California Law Review, Forthcoming, Virginia Public Law and Legal Theory Research Paper No. 2023-02, Minnesota Legal Studies Research Paper No. 23-01, Available at SSRN:

June Carbone

University of Minnesota - Twin Cities - School of Law ( email )

229-19th Avenue South
Minneapolis, MN 55455
United States

Naomi R. Cahn (Contact Author)

University of Virginia School of Law ( email )

580 Massie Road
Charlottesville, VA 22903
United States

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