How "History and Tradition" Perpetuates Inequality: Dobbs on Abortion's Nineteenth-Century Criminalization

35 Pages Posted: 5 Apr 2023

See all articles by Reva Siegel

Reva Siegel

Yale University - Law School

Date Written: April 1, 2023

Abstract

In this Commentary, I show how the tradition-entrenching methods the Court employed to decide New York State Rifle & Pistol Ass’n, Inc. v. Bruen and Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization intensify the gender biases of a constitutional order that for the majority of its existence denied women a voice in lawmaking and restricted women’s roles. The tradition entrenching methods the Court employed to decide Bruen and Dobbs elevate the significance of laws adopted at a time when women and people of color were judged unfit to participate and treated accordingly by constitutional law, common law, and positive law. The methods the Court employs are gendered in the simple sense that they tie the Constitution’s meaning to lawmaking from which women were excluded and in the deeper sense that the turn to the past provides the Court resources for expressing identity and value drawn from a culture whose laws and mores were more hierarchical than our own.

Sampling their recent opinions, Part II of this Commentary shows that the conservative Justices have repudiated past practices when those practices expressed racism or nativism to which the Justices objected. Yet, Part III of this Commentary shows that in Dobbs the conservative Justices embraced past practices as the nation’s history and tradition, counting abortion bans enacted with the support of the nineteenth-century anti-abortion campaign without scrutinizing evidence that the campaign mixed arguments for protecting unborn life with arguments that banning abortion would prevent ethnic replacement and would enforce wives’ marital and maternal roles. In Part IV, I suggest that Justice Alito might have refused to defer to prejudice of the past as he did in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue if he saw religious liberty, rather than abortion rights, at stake.

There are several reasons for revisiting the claims about abortion, history, and tradition on which the Dobbs decision rests. Even if the Supreme Court itself never acknowledges Dobbs’s selective and inaccurate account of the historical record, as it acknowledged historical errors of Bowers v. Hardwick in Lawrence v. Texas, there is value in recognizing that the Court’s claims about the past have a politics. In demonstrating that the Court selectively defers to the past, this Commentary shows how the Court’s history-and-traditions method provides new justifications for enforcing old forms of status inequality. This Commentary builds the historical record critical to debates over the criminalization of abortion in state courts and legislatures. And it contributes to Professor Melissa Murray’s remarkable and wide ranging account of how the jurisprudence of Bruen and Dobbs is gendered: Children of Men: The Roberts Court’s Jurisprudence of Masculinity.

Keywords: Dobbs, Bruen, Espinoza, originalism, history and tradition method, selective, abortion, status inequality, gendered, masculinity, nineteenth-century criminalization of abortion, dormant abortion bans, Horatio Storer

Suggested Citation

Siegel, Reva B., How "History and Tradition" Perpetuates Inequality: Dobbs on Abortion's Nineteenth-Century Criminalization (April 1, 2023). Houston Law Review, Vol. 60, 2023, Yale Law School, Public Law Research Paper , Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4406885

Reva B. Siegel (Contact Author)

Yale University - Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States
203-432-6791 (Phone)

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