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.
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.
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.