Dr. Kennedy's magic prescription for indecisive women.

The law, lawyers, and the court.
April 18 2007 7:21 PM

Father Knows Best

Dr. Kennedy's magic prescription for indecisive women.

Pro-life advocates in prayer on the steps of the Supreme Court. Click image to expand.
Anti-abortion activists pray at the Supreme Court

The key to comprehending the Supreme Court's ruling today in Gonzales v. Carhart upholding the federal partial-birth abortion ban is a mastery not of constitutional law but of a literary type. Justice Anthony Kennedy's majority opinion is less about the scope of abortion regulation than an announcement of an astonishing new test: Hereinafter, on the morally and legally thorny question of abortion, the proposed rule should be weighed against the gauzy sensitivities of that iconic literary creature: the Inconstant Female.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate. Follow her on Twitter.

Kennedy invokes The Woman Who Changed Her Mind not once, but twice today. His opinion is a love song to all women who regret their abortions after the fact, and it is in the service of these women that he justifies upholding the ban. Today's holding is a strange reworking of Taming of the Shrew, with Kennedy playing an all-knowing Baptista to a nation of fickle Biancas.

Advertisement

As a matter of law, the majority opinion today should have focused exclusively on what has changed since the high court's 2000 decision in Stenberg v. Carhart.Stenberg struck down a Nebraska ban that was almost identical to the federal ban upheld today. That's why every court to review the ban found the federal law, passed in 2003, unconstitutional. What really changed in the intervening years was the composition of the court: Sandra Day O'Connor, who voted to strike down the ban in 2000, is gone. Samuel Alito, who votes today to uphold it, is here.

What hasn't changed is that Anthony Kennedy finds partial-birth abortion really disgusting. We saw that in his dissent in Stenberg. That's what animates and drives his decision. His opinion blossoms from the premise that if all women were as sensitive as he is about the fundamental awfulness of this procedure, they'd all refuse to undergo it. Since they aren't, he'll decide for them.

Kennedy halfheartedly attempts to distinguish Stenberg from Gonzales. Sparing us his usual lofty opening sonnet to freedom and liberty and truth and good lighting, he opens with the terse insistence that this case is not Stenberg: The act is both "more specific" and "more precise" than its Nebraskan precursor. The court can uphold it without revisiting Stenberg. That's nice for Kennedy, since he is one of the authors of the famous paean to precedent in Casey that was the basis, in that 1992 case, for upholding Roe v. Wade.

Rather than admitting that his opinion today is at odds with Stenberg, Kennedy walks his reader through the horrors of the intact dilation and extraction procedure Congress has banned. This discussion goes on for five pages, and includes, for balance, an "abortion doctor's clinical description" of the abortion at issue, and that of a nurse who witnessed the procedure being "performed on a 26 1/2 week fetus." (The nurse's version: "the doctor stuck the scissors in the back of his head and the baby's arms jerked out, like a startle reaction, like a flinch, like a baby does when he think's he's going to fall.")

Kennedy contends Congress fixed the problems with the Nebraska ban in two vital ways: by making factual findings, and by narrowing the definition of the procedure such that doctors of "ordinary intelligence" know which operations will be illegal and which will not.

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore

And schools are getting worried.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

The XX Factor

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Politics

Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

Why a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Is Stirring Up Controversy

How Worried Should Poland, the Baltic States, and Georgia Be About a Russian Invasion?

Trending News Channel
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
  Life
Quora
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Behold
Sept. 21 2014 11:00 AM Sometimes You Just Need to Print Your Photos the Old-Fashioned Way 
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 21 2014 8:00 AM An Astronaut’s Guided Video Tour of Earth
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.