After nearly 50 years of federal abortion rights, the Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade on June 24 in their ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Cornell professors are reacting to the multitude of ways that the Court’s new abortion jurisprudence will change the nation’s medical, legal and political enviroment as well as the ways the decision changes their instruction in the classroom.
A historic precedential case, Roe v. Wade was seamlessly integrated into the operations and teachings of various departments. For the law department, their teaching of precedent and constitutional law relates directly to the decision. For Weill Cornell Medicine, the right to provide abortions in New York State had already been separated from Roe v. Wade and additional legislation will continue to protect this right.
Across the board, professors did not seem to find the Dobbs decision to be surprising.
“I expect it feels sort of like the invasion of Poland that kicked off WWII: Everyone knew war was imminent, but it’s still a shock when the tanks start rolling,” said Prof. David A. Bateman, government.
Weill Cornell Medicine Prof. Stephen Chasen, clinical obstetrics and gynecology, said that it was only a matter of time before Roe would be overturned after new justices joined the court between 2017 and 2020.
The decision’s effects would, however, are limited in Ithaca: New York State had already taken steps in previous years to affirm protections for pregnant individuals such as passing the Reproductive Health Act in 2019, Governor Kathy Hochul (D-N.Y.) reacted to the Dobbs ruling with promises of $35 million to expand abortion access statewide as well as legislation to protect women traveling to New York for abortions and Ithaca declared itself a sanctuary city for abortions and reproductive healthcare just two weeks after the ruling in Dobbs was announced.
Despite their location in New York, Chasen and his colleagues have a history fighting for abortion rights. In 2003, they sued the government in federal court to challenge the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act, which prevented doctors from using their medical judgment to determine what technique of abortion would be the most safe for individual women. While they succeeded at trial, they lost at the Supreme Court.
“It became clear that the courts could and would rule against physicians and women if given the opportunity,” Chasen said.
The implications of the Court’s decision in Dobbs are extensive and multifaceted. Cornell Law professors noted the implications that the opinion has for other cases.
“At first it seemed that just the privacy based jurisprudence of the court — cases about birth control and same-sex marriage — were threatened if the principles of Dobbs were carried to their logical conclusions,” said Prof. Cynthia Bowman, law. “But, now, I’m also concerned by what its logic may mean for the women’s rights cases that rest on the equal protection clause as well.”
In an article written for Verdict Justia, Prof. Michael Dorf, law, criticized Justice Samuel Alito’s inclusion of selective language from liberal scholars in the Dobbs majority opinion. Bowman also mentioned the use of ancient precedents from treatise writers in the opinion, noting that these writers believed that women should be dominated by men.
“In their legal research and writing classes, first-year law students learn not to quote language that supports a position they favor if that language comes from a case whose holding undercuts that position,” Dorf wrote. “Justice Alito either never learned or forgot that basic lesson.”
Prof. Richard Bensel, government, also took issue with the specific language used in the opinion. Bensel explained that overturning precedent undermines the integrity of the Court’s position in the American judicial system.
“I would have preferred a much less strident text in which the Court emphasized that it was merely returning the trajectory of constitutional interpretation to what it had been before Roe,” Bensel said. “And that its main concern in doing so is to protect the independence of the Court from the passions now consuming American politics.”
Because Dobbs returns the right to determine abortion laws to the states rather than the federal government, professors like Bensel worry that the decision will increase national divides.
“One of the implications of the decision that has not yet been noted is that the decision will change the relationship between the regions of the nation,” Bensel said. “Abortion is a normative issue with no ‘objective’ answer and will never be settled by argument. Because that is the case, the solution will always be coercive.”
Bateman had a similar reaction, explaining that the politics of abortion will dominate national politics and require the erosion of other national rights, like the right to cross state lines.
“Whichever side is in the minority in a particular state will look for national allies. And the movements are national, not state-level. So there is nothing remotely stable about making this entirely a state decision,” Bateman said. “States now have the authority to coercively restrain women and violate them through forced birth — but it will be impossible to stop there.”
The decision has directly affected the Cornell community both in and out of the classroom.
“How to teach students about the rule of law, precedent and the allegedly non-political nature of law is seriously threatened,” Bowman said. “As well as the lives of all my female students!”
Bateman explained how the government department has largely focused on the decline of U.S. democracy in the executive branch in particular, but the recent string of court decisions emphasizes the importance of the judicial branch as well.
“One way the decision relates to the government department in particular, beyond its impact on women and trans-men within the department, is that it should invite us to reconsider some of the basics of how American politics is taught,” Bateman said.
As his ability to provide medical care for his patients has not changed, Chasen expects that he, and his colleagues in similar states where abortion remains legal, will also care for individuals from states that have banned abortion.
“But there is always the threat that the federal government could be controlled by politicians who prefer to oppress women,” Chasen said. “And we could be vulnerable to federal legislation that can restrict the rights of pregnant individuals everywhere.”
Correction, July 11, 4:29 p.m.: The initial version of this article incorrectly named Prof. David Alexander Bateman as Prof. Alexander Bateman. The story has since been corrected.