McAfee SECURE sites help keep you safe from identity theft, credit card fraud, spyware, spam, viruses and online scams

What are the chief constitutional issues and social/moral/political issues raised by the US Supreme Court's decision on Roe Vs Wade?

The US Supreme Court's decision on Roe v. Wade was a seminal moment not just in US legal history but for US history as a whole. The landmark ruling remains controversial to this day with public opinion sharply divided on the matter. As we shall see, the legitimacy of Roe v. Wade has been long disputed and the case has impacted not upon only upon the abortion issue but also much wider constitutional issues. At its heart the debate over Roe comes down to how, and indeed if, the Supreme Court should interpret and enforce fundamental rights in a constitutional democracy. Roe also demonstrates not only how the courts shape national life but also how the world outside the courts - social protest movements, the political system and so on - shapes constitutional decisions. This essay intends to discuss the chief constitutional issues raised by the US Supreme Court's decision on Roe v. Wade, as well as examining the and social, moral and political debates that the case has impacted upon. We shall look at the most prominent dilemmas that have vexed constitutional scholars since the Roe case, such as the problems in defining the constitutional status of unborn life and the role of the Supreme Court in a constitutional democracy. The central constitutional objections to the Roe case, namely that there is no valid constitutional foundation for the Court's decision and that the Supreme Court overreached itself in making what was essentially a legislative decision. This paper shall also discuss the moral, social and political implications of Roe, such as the issue of when human life begins and whether a woman's right to choose has precedence over the sanctity of human life. The effect of Roe as a catalyst for conservative and religious social movements shall be detailed, as shall the way in which these groups helped to reshape the American political landscape.

That Roe v. Wade is such a controversial and important case is partly because of the critical significance of the complex and vexing constitutional issues that it raises. It compels us to think about the constitutional status of unborn life but perhaps more pressingly it poses some fundamental questions about the role of the courts in a constitutional democracy. For example, should the Supreme Court identify rights that are not explicitly mentioned in the constitution? If so, how? Should the courts recognise and guarantee rights that are opposed by a significant section of the citizenship? If so, can this be allied with a commitment to democracy? It has been pointed out elsewhere that it is a curious fact of American life that in every generation the Supreme Court is called upon the make decisions that exemplify the contradictions and dilemmas inherent in the U.S. constitution, decisions that call into question the role of the courts in interpreting constitutional quandaries. In the 1950s and 1960s the Supreme Court had to wrestle with the case of Brown v. Board of Education; for the following generation, Roe would be the key case that came to be debated hotly by American's constitutional scholars. However, unlike Brown, the legitimacy of which has long since been widely accepted by the public, politicians and constitutional scholars alike, the decision in Roe case remains disputed still, as we shall soon discover.

In terms of Roe's social and political significance, the case acted as a catalyst for conservative and religious social movements who valued the sanctity of life over the right of a mother to opt for abortion. Roe made abortion a much more contentious political issue; Balkin points out that pre-Roe abortion was not a leading issue for either of the two main political parties in the US, the Democrats were not particularly considered the pro-abortion rights party and nor were the Republicans especially pro-choice. The Roe case helped change this. The abortion issue became a key battle ground in the culture wars, the clash between right and left from the 1970s onwards. Abortion, along with other issues such as affirmative action and busing, became part of a larger agenda which was pursued by the Republican Party and the religious right. Roe helped to reshape the political map in America. It was the Roe verdict which so outraged the religious conservatives and helped to push conservative Christian groups - which had previously been if not apolitical then at least politically passive - towards political activism. These conservative Christian groups, energized by the battle over abortion came to be referred to as the 'religious right' and this movement soon came to hold increasing power and influence within the Republican party itself. By the time Reagan was in the White House the religious right was a power block within the Republican Party and they were impressively effective at mobilizing their fervent grass-root support, something which granted them enormous political power, so much so that they began to be credited with the power to decide elections, even the race for the White House. The pro-life movement was instrumental in electing not only Ronald Reagan but also a whole host of other socially conservative, anti-Roe politicians. By the 1980s the Christian evangelical movement had helped to turn the Republican Party into a pro-life party; in 1980 the Republican Party platform, for the first time, called for an amendment to be made to the Constitution to protect the right to life of an unborn child. The rise of the religious right in the wake of Roe also impacted upon the federal judiciary as the Republican Party, and Ronald Reagan in particular, sought to roll back what they saw as a liberal bias in the judiciary by appointing justices who shared the values of the right of the Republican Party, such as opposition to abortion. As well as becoming a totem for conservative and religious groups, the abortion issue also became a main focus on the emerging women's rights movement that was expanding post-Roe. Prior to Roe abortion had been considered in purely medical terms, with little concern for its ethical implications. Post-Roe however a much greater emphasis on placed upon the procreative liberty of women and the wider matter of women's rights and gender equality.

In conclusion, there are a multitude of constitutional, social, moral and political issues raised by the US Supreme Court's decision on Roe v. Wade. The case forces us to ask ourselves complex, difficult and at times, uncomfortable questions; When does life begin? Is a fetus a person, with rights conferred under law? Does a woman's right to an abortion have precedence over the sanctity of human life? Roe has been criticised for not adequately settling such questions, thus keeping the abortion issue a politically contentious one ever since but perhaps Roe's failings, such as they are, can be understood, if not forgiven, for the right of one human to take, or at least deny, life to another is an issue that has confounded moral philosophers throughout the ages. Roe's significance is not only in the moral questions it poses but also due to the complex and vexing constitutional issues that it raises. The case shows the difficulty in attempting to identify rights that are not explicitly set forth in the constitution as well as the problems faced in a democracy when the courts recognise and guarantee rights that are opposed by a significant section of the population. As has been detailed, there remain two key constitutional objections to the Roe decision. Firstly, it is argued that there is no valid constitutional foundation for verdict. Secondly, critics allege that rather than acting in its proper role as the interpreter of the law, in the Roe case the court was making a legislative decision. These constitutional arguments have shaped the political and social consequences of the case, the most prominent of which was the way in which Roe has acted as a catalyst for conservative and religious social movements which have helped to reshape to American political landscape.

Related Links
To Top