Working Paper No. 13-44:
Constitutional Abortion and Culture

Author(s):

Helen Alvaré

Date Posted: August 2013

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Abstract:

The U.S. Supreme Court’s abortion decisions over the past forty years have helped to shape cultural beliefs and practices concerning heterosexual relationships, marriage, and parenting. This is true both in the practical and in the legal senses. Practically speaking, definitively separating sex from childbearing, as only abortion can do (given how often contraception fails), inevitably changes the meaning of sex, and therefore of heterosexual relationships. Legally speaking, the Court’s influence was mediated significantly by its decision to locate the right of abortion in an area of constitutional law—substantive due process—which claims to contain only those rights that are indispensable to our national understanding of freedom, both at the level of the individual and respecting our overarching democratic order. In particular, over the course of forty years of abortion opinions, the Court’s reflections on a claimed link between abortion and freedom have led it to conclusions broadly reflected in modern American beliefs and practices insofar as sex, marriage, and parenting are concerned. These include, inter alia, a suspicion of motherhood on the grounds of its risks and harms, the dispensable roles and violent characters of men, the great importance of adults’ wishes, and the importance of sexual expression for individual identity, divorced from consequences for partners or children.