I wrote this post about twenty-week abortion bans for RH Reality Check, and it explains what a circuit split is, so if you ever wanted to know what that means, you should read this! But you’ll have to click outside the blog which I know causes some of you great consternation. You have been thusly warned. Also, hello everyone! -ABLxx
In the “war on women,” 20-week abortion bans have become a rallying point for both pro- and anti-choice camps alike. While Texas’ recently-enacted law, which among other things bans abortions after 20 weeks, may have garnered most of the media attention in recent weeks, so far 13 states have passed similar bans, and three states have passed even more restrictive laws, prohibiting abortions as early as six weeks’ gestation. Nevertheless, these 20-week abortion bans have been gaining traction.
Much has been written about the politics behind these laws—especially the false claims that they are designed to protect women—but so far, there has been relatively little coverage of the anti-choice litigation strategy in relation to these bans. For instance, how do anti-choice campaigners intend to persuade the Supreme Court to reverse Roe v. Wade? Of all the various state anti-abortion laws, which one is most likely to be used as the test case at the national level?
The Supreme Court won’t review its long-standing abortion jurisprudence unless it has to. Given the controversial nature of abortion, a simple appeal from a state to clarify abortion law probably won’t prompt the Court to act. (The Oklahoma supreme court recently tried this tactic when it struck down Oklahoma’s ultrasound law and practically begged the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case; the Court didn’t bite.) What will prompt the Supreme Court to act is a conflict between the laws that apply in one circuit and the laws that apply in another.
“Circuit” is a fancy legal term for a group of states. The country is split into eleven circuits, plus the D.C. Circuit, with one federal appeals court in charge of setting the law for each of the circuits. If one circuit court sets law that is different than the law that applies in another circuit, then a legal mess—or, as it is sometimes called, a “circuit split”—results. And since the Supreme Court likes to have laws that bind the entire country, it will intervene to resolve the circuit split.
The push for 20-week abortion bans is part of a national strategy implemented by anti-choice advocates to create exactly the sort of legal mess that will force the Supreme Court to reconsider Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, and to revisit the viability standard that has served as the constitutional foundation for abortion rights for 40 years.
An analysis by RH Reality Check suggests that the strategy deployed by anti-choicers is deeply subversive. It capitalizes on personal feelings and anti-abortion hostilities by enticing judges and legislatures to abandon empirical science in favor of biased, agenda-driven science or, as it is sometimes called, “junk science.” Proponents of junk science, which has become a cottage industry among anti-abortion advocates, confuse the issue of fetal viability, invent claims about fetuses feeling pain (or masturbating in utero), and call into question established medical standards.
The strategy is a smart one, to be sure. Anti-choicers understand that once junk science has been incorporated into legislation, courts are not inclined to question those scientific findings—no matter how agenda-driven they are—and will simply apply the law to those “facts.” In cases when junk science is presented to a court, a judge (or justice) hostile to abortion rights requires only the flimsiest reasoning to ground their legal opinion in fact, even if those “facts” are anything but factual.
It is hard to fathom that any court would find these pernicious bans constitutional. After all, the Constitution guarantees a right to choose abortion up until the point of fetal viability, which occurs well after 20 weeks’ gestation. Nevertheless, anti-choice advocates are alarmingly optimistic about their chances in making these bans stick—at least, some are.
The 20-week abortion ban enthusiasts are confident that the key to a reversal of Roe v. Wade rests with Justice Anthony Kennedy. In his majority opinion in Gonzales v. Carhart, Kennedy made it clear that he finds certain abortion procedures to be terrible, and that he is very concerned about the mental state of women who would dare to seek them. What about the bonds of love between mother and child, he wonders in his opinion. What if women come to regret their choice to abort the “infant life they once created and sustained”?
Since Anthony Kennedy’s 2003 opinion in Gonzales, anti-choice litigators and advocates have smartly tailored their litigation strategy to suit Kennedy’s sensibilities. Drawing upon the junk science that anti-abortion advocates like David Reardon and frequent co-authors J.M. Thorp and Priscilla K. Coleman have been developing for decades, anti-choice advocates are weaving junk science into the very fabric of state-level 20-week abortion bans.
[read the rest at RH Reality Check]