The constitutional framework of Roe is about far more than abortion. It’s about rearing our children without unwarranted government interference. It’s about choosing whom we want to marry. It’s about deciding with whom we want to create a home. It’s about the right to use contraception. It’s about what the Supreme Court in Planned Parenthood v. Casey explained is the “promise of the Constitution that there is a realm of personal liberty which the government may not enter.”
This guarantee of individual liberty is bound together through decades of accumulated legal precedent. Within the interconnected framework of our rights, Roe is a load-bearing element. Knock it down, and the structure falls.
Roe is 45 years old. It resides in the middle of nearly a century of jurisprudence reaching backward and forward in time: expanding on the liberty protections that came before it and laying the groundwork for recognition of important future rights.
In deciding Roe, the court looked to cases in the 1920s on the right of parents to educate their children according to their values and ideas, and the justices drew a line to landmark decisions affirming the right to use contraception and, in 1967’s Loving v. Virginia, the right to marry someone of a different race.
That line led to the conclusion, enshrined in Roe and elaborated on in Casey, that liberty cannot exist if we are not free to make decisions about our lives, bodies and health free from government interference.
Just as Roe rested on past liberty decisions, it became the basis for future ones — including outside the area of women’s reproductive rights. The court cited Roe and Casey’s reasoning in a broad range of subsequent cases. Those include landmark decisions protecting liberty rights, as in Lawrence v. Texas (2003), which held that the government cannot criminalize intimate sexual conduct between same-sex partners, and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), guaranteeing same-sex couples the right to marry.
This line of precedent protects us all, and a post-Kennedy Supreme Court could not sever it without threatening to destroy our “realm of personal liberty.”
Overturn Roe, and that protected realm vanishes.
The short-term impact would bring a drastic reduction in access to reproductive health care for millions of women. If Roe fell tomorrow, as many as 23 states could immediately ban abortion. As in the days before Roe, the harm would fall hardest on young and low-income women, women of color and anyone unable to travel out of state to seek access to abortion care that was once available closer to home.
The long-term harm would not be limited to women who need abortion care. Invite the government to exert control over a woman’s body, and invite tyranny over our most intimate and personal life decisions.
That’s why it’s time to stop talking about Roe as a stand-alone case. The Supreme Court can’t just negate a woman’s right to abortion without unraveling protections for all. You can have either the president’s promise about overturning Roe or the Constitution’s promise of a realm of personal liberty. You can’t have both.