Why Was Roe v. Wade Wrong?

Forthcoming Geoffrey R. Stone and Lee Bollinger, eds., Roe v. Dobbs: The Past, Present, and Future of a Constitutional Right to Abortion (Oxford 2023)

24 Pages Posted: 13 Mar 2023

Date Written: March 8, 2023


The conventional critique of Roe v. Wade is both undertheorized and unsatisfying. Critics of Roe—such as John Hart Ely and Justice Scalia—have hammered the Court’s opinion for recognizing a supposed right to abortion that lacks a clear textual foundation in the Constitution’s language. Yet Roe was hardly the first time that the Supreme Court imposed a constitutional right that lacks textual support—and it is not immediately apparent what makes Roe more egregious than the other court-created rights that have won broad acceptance across the political and jurisprudential spectrum. Roe’s critics have tried to respond to this challenge by invoking a history-and-tradition test for distinguishing the “good” substantive-due-process rights from the “bad” ones. Yet there are many problems with using history and tradition as the touchstone for unenumerated constitutional rights. One problem is that the history-and-tradition test does nothing to salvage the constitutional holdings of Griswold v. Connecticut, which recognized a right to contraception, and Loving v. Virginia, which established a right to interracial marriage. There are also many unenumerated rights that are “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition” yet have never been recognized as constitutional entitlements by the Supreme Court. And the history-and-tradition test has no account for why traditional rights and practices should be entrenched as constitutional mandates when they were never formally incorporated into constitutional text.

Rather than rely on a history-and-tradition test to distinguish Roe from other substantive-due-process rulings, the Court should instead ask whether the unenumerated rights that it has recognized can find textual support in other sources of supreme federal law, such as federal statutes and agency rules. And it should, when possible, invoke those extra-constitutional legal authorities to support the correctness of those substantive-due-process rulings or (at the very least) to rebuff efforts to overrule them. Many (though not all) of the rights that the Supreme Court has imposed under the rubric of substantive due process or equal protection are independently protected by non-constitutional sources of federal law. And that is all that is needed to distinguish those cases from Roe, which has never been codified as a federally protected right—and it explains why the Roe regime can and should be regarded as uniquely indefensible and an improper imposition of judge-held preferences.

Keywords: abortion, Roe, Roe v. Wade, Dobbs, Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, text, textualist, textualism, Ely, Scalia, Griswold, Eisenstadt, Loving, Brown, history, tradition, intratextualism, jurisdiction, mootness, living Constitution, Fourteenth Amendment, consequentialism

JEL Classification: K00, K1, K10, K19, K3, K30, K36, K39

Suggested Citation

Mitchell, Jonathan F., Why Was Roe v. Wade Wrong? (March 8, 2023). Forthcoming Geoffrey R. Stone and Lee Bollinger, eds., Roe v. Dobbs: The Past, Present, and Future of a Constitutional Right to Abortion (Oxford 2023), Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4381961 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4381961

Jonathan F. Mitchell (Contact Author)

Mitchell Law PLLC ( email )

111 Congress Avenue
Suite 400
Austin, TX 78701
United States

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