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Harvard Law Review


In Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Justice Alito justified the decision to overrule Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey with an appeal to democracy. He insisted that it was “time to heed the Constitution and return the issue of abortion to the people’s elected representatives.” This invocation of democracy had undeniable rhetorical power: it allowed the Dobbs majority to lay waste to decades’ worth of precedent, while rebutting charges of judicial imperialism and purporting to restore the people’s voices. This Article interrogates Dobbs’s claim to vindicate principles of democracy, examining both the intellectual pedigree of this claim and its substantive vision of democracy.

In grounding its decision in democracy, the Dobbs majority relied on a well-worn but dubious narrative: that Roe, and later Casey, disrupted ongoing democratic deliberation on the abortion issue, wresting this contested question from the people and imposing the Court’s own will. The majority insisted that this critique had always attended Roe. However, in tracing the provenance of the democratic deliberation argument, this Article finds more complicated intellectual origins. In fact, the argument did not surface in Roe’s immediate aftermath, but rather emerged years later. And it did so not organically, but through a series of interconnected legal, movement, and political efforts designed to undermine and ultimately topple Roe and Casey. The product of these efforts, the Dobbs majority’s claim that democracy demanded overruling Roe and Casey, was deployed to overcome the force of stare decisis in Dobbs — and may ultimately reshape the scope and substance of the Court’s stare decisis analysis in future cases.

Having identified the intellectual origins of the democratic deliberation argument and its contemporary consequences, this Article examines the contours of the Dobbs majority’s vision of democratic deliberation. We show that although Dobbs trafficked in the rhetoric of democracy, its conception of democracy was both internally inconsistent and extraordinarily limited, even myopic. The opinion misapprehended the processes and institutions that are constitutive of democracy, focusing on state legislatures while overlooking a range of other federal, state, and local constitutional actors. As troublingly, it reflected a distorted understanding of political power and representation — one that makes political power reducible to voting, entirely overlooking metrics like representation in electoral office and in the ecosystem of campaign finance. The opinion was also willfully blind to the antidemocratic implications of its “history and tradition” interpretive method, which binds the recognition of constitutional rights to a past in which very few Americans were meaningful participants in the production of law and legal meaning. The deficits of the Dobbs majority’s conception of democracy appear even more pronounced when considered alongside the Court’s recent and active interventions to distort and disrupt the functioning of the electoral process. Indeed, Dobbs purported to “return” the abortion question to the people and to democratic deliberation at the precise moment when the Court’s own actions have ensured that the extant system is unlikely either to produce genuine deliberation or to yield widely desired outcomes.

Ultimately, a close examination of the Dobbs majority’s invocation of democracy suggests that the majority may have employed the values and vernacular of democracy as a means to a different end. As we explain, the majority’s embrace of democracy and democratic deliberation allowed it to shield its actions from claims of judicial activism and overreach. More profoundly, and perhaps paradoxically, the opinion may lay the groundwork for the eventual vindication and protection of particular minority interests — those of the fetus. With this in mind, the Dobbs majority’s settlement of the abortion question is unlikely to be a lasting one. Indeed, aspects of the opinion suggest that this settlement is merely a way station en route to a more permanent resolution — the recognition of fetal personhood and the total abolition of legal abortion in the United States.





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The Harvard Law Review Association


Abortion Law, Constitutional Law, Democracy, Reproductive Justice, Reproductive Rights


Constitutional Law | Law



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