Honor Thy Mother?: The Supreme Court's Jurisprudence of Motherhood

41 Pages Posted: 9 Mar 2007

See all articles by Laura E. Oren

Laura E. Oren

University of Houston Law Center


The United States Supreme Court has spoken more directly about the meaning of fatherhood than it has about motherhood. Where it has considered what it means to be a mother, the Court has done so incoherently. Despite some positive developments, all too often the Court has treated selected issues as unrelated to each other, and has reduced its analysis to simple assumptions about generic "Motherhood." Despite language in some of the cases glorifying "motherhood," taken as a whole the Court's jurisprudence fails to follow one of the fundamental precepts of our culture, "Honor Thy Mother."

The Court has addressed four categories of issues relating to women's physically and socially reproductive roles: It has elucidated the rights of unwed fathers to establish or protect family relationships, by contrast to unmarried mothers; it has considered the problems of single mothers who are dependent on public welfare; it has ruled on issues of working mothers; and last, it has addressed laws which burden the right to refuse or to choose motherhood.

When compared to unmarried fathers, biology is destiny for mothers, who are presumed to be "caring" in a way that fathers have to establish by "stepping forward." But for those mothers who become dependent on the largesse of the state, the presumption shifts: it is no longer acceptable for them to be paid to stay at home and raise children. Rather, they are objects of suspicion and coercion who must be pushed into the labor force in short order. Working mothers, on the other hand, are respectable. They earn this status, however, largely insofar as they can conform to a neutral role in the workplace. Finally, in its abortion decisions, the Court has significantly retreated from its pioneering Roe v. Wade decision about the right to refuse to become a mother. Furthermore, the Court long since made it clear that indigent women have no constitutional right to the resources necessary to make a healthy decision to refuse motherhood.

Keywords: Motherhood, Unmarried Fathers, Unmarried Mothers, Public Welfare Benefits, Working Mothers, Reproductive Choice, Feminist Jurisprudence

Suggested Citation

Oren, Laura E., Honor Thy Mother?: The Supreme Court's Jurisprudence of Motherhood. Hastings Women's Law Journal, Vol. 17, p. 187, 2006, University of Houston Law Center No. 2007-A-08, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=969072

Laura E. Oren (Contact Author)

University of Houston Law Center ( email )

4604 Calhoun Road
Houston, TX 77204-6060
United States

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics