The Supreme Court has agreed to take up Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which is about a Mississippi law that substantially bars abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy. The Court’s ruling, whatever they decide, however united or split they decide to be, will substantially impact their 1992 Planned Parenthood v Casey ruling that created a bar against “substantial burdens” on a putative right to abortion and their Roe v Wade ruling of 20 years earlier that manufactured out of the umbras a “right” to abortion.
The Court, though, in keeping with Chief Justice John Roberts’ timidity, is unlikely to decide the matter broadly, possibly even avoiding Constitutional matters altogether. It has taken up, from the several questions in front of the lower courts, only the narrow one of whether all pre-viability bans on elective abortions violate the Constitution.
It occurs to me that even that much hinges on the definition of “viability.”
Here’s the Merriam-Webster Online definition of viability as it pertains to babies:
the capability of a fetus to survive outside the uterus
Roe‘s creation set an implicitly technology-based threshold of the third trimester for its viability standard. There’s nothing in the definition of viability about requiring medical support—or medical intervention of any sort—for the fetus to survive outside the uterus. Medical technology has advanced considerably in the 40 years since Roe; the 15 weeks of Dobbs is within the capability of today’s medical technology.
Texas just enacted a similar ban, but that State’s threshold was set at 6 weeks. That does stretch the bounds of today’s medical technology, but maybe doesn’t exceed them. The Court’s Dobbs ruling will, of course, impact the Texas law if it goes one way. Or, the Court could uphold Dobbs, but say 6 weeks goes too far.
In any event, while the technology basis of Roe‘s threshold is strongly implied, it would be good if the Court in its ruling explicitly stated that the threshold depends on medical technology and can be moved toward conception as medicine increases its ability to sustain fetuses and bring them to term outside the uterus.