Article | Consitutional Law
How the First Amendment’s Commitment to Religious Freedom Could Ironically Save Roe v. Wade . . . If We Let It
by Abigail Sellers*
From Vol. 94, No. 3
94 S. Cal. L. Rev. 691 (2021)
Keywords: First Amendment, Reproductive Health, Abortion, Roe v. Wade
On May 15, 2019, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signed the Alabama Human Life Protection Act into law.1 The Act imposes serious punishments on doctors who perform an abortion unless it “is necessary in order to prevent a serious health risk to the unborn child’s mother,” there is an ectopic pregnancy, or the fetus has a “lethal anomaly.”2 Notably, the Act does not provide an exception for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest.3 Of particular interest to this Note are statements made by Alabama lawmakers indicating this law was passed to comport with their and Alabama citizens’ religious belief that “every life is a sacred gift from God.”4 Furthermore, Alabama lawmakers are keenly aware the law is in violation of a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy as protected under the Fourteenth Amendment Due Process right to privacy.5 In fact, the Act was designed to challenge the cases establishing and upholding this right—Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey—in the hopes that the Supreme Court will overrule these precedents.6
Even more disconcerting to reproductive health advocates, Alabama was only one of seven states that passed laws in 2019 severely restricting access to abortions.7 The six other states—Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, and Ohio—criminalized abortion after six to eight weeks of pregnancy when a fetal heartbeat can be detected.8 These are aptly referred to as “heartbeat laws.” The passage of these laws was marked by religious statements from state lawmakers, and some of these laws have been expressly designed to challenge Roe.9
With a challenge to each of these laws making its way through various federal courts,10 it is possible that the Supreme Court will hear a case involving one or more of these laws and will once again get a chance to reconsider its holdings from Roe and Casey.11 This Note will argue that the Court should never reach the privacy issue at the heart of Roe and Casey. Instead, exercising judicial restraint, the Court should decide only as much as is necessary to resolve the case in front of it12 and should deem the Alabama Human Life Protection Act and the six heartbeat laws unconstitutional under the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. Under current Supreme Court precedent, when a law lacks a sincere secular purpose, it violates the Establishment Clause,13 and as the previously mentioned religious statements by lawmakers indicate, the purpose behind these laws is not secular. Thus, the Court should never reach the privacy issue.
This Note will (1) examine the history of the debate surrounding abortion in American politics to show how Roe and Casey are once again ripe to be challenged, (2) explain the need for a new approach to challenge the abortion laws in question based on the current composition of the Supreme Court, (3) argue that the laws violate the Establishment Clause, and (4) explain why an Establishment Clause claim is worth pursuing.
*. Editor-in-Chief, Southern California Law Review, Volume 94; J.D. Candidate 2021, University of Southern California Gould School of Law; B.S. Biochemistry & B.A. Spanish, 2018, Arizona State University. I would like to thank Melissa Sellers, Dave Sellers, Perry Vargas, and the rest of my Sellers & Vargas family members for their support throughout my time in law school. I would also like to thank Professor Rebecca Brown for her feedback. Finally, many thanks to all the Southern California Law Review for their invaluable work on my piece.