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Princeton professors, alumni react to SCOTUS decision to overturn Roe v. Wade

The high court held that the Constitution does not confer a right to an abortion

<h5>A crowd gathers outside of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. following the release of the decision to overturn <em>Roe v. Wade.</em></h5>
<h6>Katherine Dailey / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
A crowd gathers outside of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. following the release of the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Katherine Dailey / The Daily Princetonian

In a majority opinion penned by University alumnus Justice Samuel Alito ’72, the U.S. Supreme Court held Friday that the Constitution does not protect a right to an abortion, overturning Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey. As news broke, many Princeton community members joined in the chorus of reproductive rights activists protesting the ruling across the nation, while some conservative alumni and professors lauded the decision.

The Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling, which upheld a Mississippi law banning abortions after 15 weeks in a 5-3-1 decision, falls largely in line with expectations based on a draft majority opinion leaked to Politico in early May. The decision will limit or eliminate abortion rights in at least 22 states

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Two University alumni, Sonia Sotomayor ’76 and Elena Kagan ’81, were among the three liberal justices who dissented from the decision.

After the leak on May 2, as many students and alumni rallied against the decision and condemned Alito as its architect, The Daily Princetonian spoke with University alumni serving in Congress, as well as professors in the history and politics departments and the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA). Now, in the wake of the decision and with abortion already illegal in five states, many of those same community members are speaking out.

About six hours following the release of the decision on June 24, the University released a message to the undergraduate student body in reference to the court’s decision.

After reviewing the ruling, University officials expressed confidence in the school’s ability to provide unchanged healthcare and benefits for students in New Jersey. The University is still assessing how the ruling will affect students outside of New Jersey and will provide information at a later time. 

Under the Freedom of Reproductive Choice Act in New Jersey, “every individual present in the state with the right to choose or refuse contraception or sterilization, and to choose whether to carry a pregnancy, to give birth, or to terminate a pregnancy,” the University statement said. New Jersey codified reproductive rights, including the right to an abortion, into state law in January 2022.

The University also confirmed that student access through the University’s health plan to abortions and contraceptives will be covered in accordance with state law.

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Many professors speak out against ruling, say the decision puts other rights in jeopardy

Stanley Katz, a professor emeritus in SPIA, told the ‘Prince’ that the decision should come as “no surprise.”

“The decision is clear, and it takes us back to 1972, when those of us who favored the idea of a woman’s right to choose abortion were fighting in state legislatures for statutes to create such rights,” wrote Katz, a decorated scholar of American legal history. “It wasn’t easy then and it will not be easy now.”

Katz said that the Dobbs decision appears particularly hypocritical and inconsistent to him in light of the high court’s ruling the day prior, when it struck down a New York law that limited the right to carry guns in public places. 

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“Yesterday we were told by Justice Thomas that the states had no right to limit undoubted constitutional rights, since the US Supremes could set the rules,” Katz said. “Today we are told that ‘undoubted’ constitutional rights can be terminated at will by the US Supremes, and that we should look to the states if we want to protect such asserted rights.”

In Katz’s view, the court has failed to “play its appropriate role” as a democratic institution, and instead is exercising “brute judicial power.”

“This is yet another example of how the anti-majoritarian bias of the 1787 constitution has made it possible for a minority to rule at the national level,” he wrote.

Martin Flaherty, a visiting professor at SPIA, called the court’s reasoning weak with regard to substantive due process analysis, and criticized it for giving “no serious consideration of alternative bases of a woman’s right to choose, including the Equal Protection Clause and the Privileges or Immunities Clause.” 

“This radical step comes from a Court of questionable legitimacy,” wrote Flaherty, who studies the role of history in American constitutional interpretation. “Two Justices, Gorsuch and Coney Barrett, were selected in a manner that abandoned established norms concerning the confirmation of Supreme Court Justices.”

The ruling signals to Flaherty that there are “very dark days ahead” — especially as concerns other, related rights.

“The Court stated that its decision is limited to the right to cho[o]se, and not to unenumerated rights in general,” he said in an email to the ‘Prince.’ “But given the boldness of today’s action, it is hard to believe that the five justices represented in the Alito opinion will not restrict related substantive Due Process rights such as contraceptives, to sex between persons of the same gender, or same-sex marriage.”

In various statements posted on Instagram, SPIA faculty weighed in on what the decision means, with many echoing Flaherty’s concern about what the ruling could herald for rights beyond reproduction.

“In taking the position that abortion does not have a long enough history to merit protection from the Court, the dissenters may prove prescient in their prediction: ‘all rights that have no history stretching back to the mid-19th century are insecure,’” wrote Sarah L. Staszak, a lecturer in SPIA whose research concerns American legal systems and the Civil Rights era. 

In his concurrence, Justice Clarence Thomas specifically pointed to cases that concern the right to privacy, writing that “in future cases, we should reconsider all of this Court’s substantive due process precedents, including Griswold, Lawrence, and Obergefell.” The concurrence stands in contrast to the majority opinion, which stated that “nothing in this opinion should be understood to cast doubt on precedents that do not concern abortion.”

Similarly to Flaherty and Staszak, politics professor Paul Frymer, who serves as the director of the Program in Law and Public Affairs, argued that a wide plethora of rights are now on the line.

“Other major tenets of the ‘rights revolution’ era will also be threatened, from individual privacy rights that include sexuality and marriage, to Equal Protection Rights that include issues such as affirmative action (a matter that will be brought before this Court next year), and voting rights,” Frymer wrote.

Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs Elizabeth Levy Paluck discussed the court’s response to “the fact that the majority of this country supports legalized access to abortion.” Recent polling has shown 61 percent of Americans believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

“Now, public reactions to the overturning of Roe will make it crystal clear: the Court has disregarded the preferences of the majority of people across the country,” she wrote.

Elizabeth Mitchell Armstrong, a sociology professor who studies the sociology of reproduction, wrote that “the best guarantor of fetal health and wellbeing is maternal health and wellbeing.”

At least one faculty member at the University spoke publicly of the ruling in a positive light.

McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence Robert P. George, a renowned conservative, wrote on Twitter addressing “pro-life” friends. George encouraged his followers to “not exult over those of our fellow citizens--good people who are sincerely concerned about women’s welfare--who see the demise of Roe as a disaster.”

History professor Julian Zelizer, an expert of late 20th-century American history, put the ruling in historical context.

“Conservatives have been playing the long game since the 1980s with respects to reproductive rights,” he wrote on Twitter. “Today SCOTUS delivered the ruling they have been waiting for.”

Alumni in politicsviews on court’s decision fall along partisan lines

For alumni serving in Congress and those active in political organizations, views on the Dobbs ruling largely fell along party lines: While Democrats expressed outrage, Republicans celebrated the decision. 

Rep. John Sarbanes ’84 (D-Md.) said in a statement that a “crisis of legitimacy” has now engulfed the high court.

“Today, the extremist Supreme Court majority struck down the constitutional right to abortion — and with it, the fundamental right of women to control their own health, lives and futures,” he wrote.

Like many of the professors, he also discussed the potential effects that the decision will have on other currently protected rights.

“This decision opens the door to the passage of draconian measures that criminalize reproductive health care in states across the country,” Sarbanes said. “Moreover, this decision signals the Supreme Court’s intention to wage war against other constitutionally-protected rights, including LGBTQ+ rights and access to contraception.”

Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi ’95 (D-Ill.) shared a similar view.

“The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade is a tragic, devastating rollback of nearly half a century of progress and precedent in protecting reproductive rights, the right to bodily autonomy, the right to privacy, and the rights of women more broadly,” Krishnamoorthi wrote in a statement.

In an email to the ‘Prince,’ Rep. Ken Buck ’81 (R-Colo.) held a different view, calling Roe v. Wade “a mistake” and the Dobbs decision a “victory.”

“The Supreme Court tried to legislate on a difficult moral issue to unify the country and failed miserably. The draft opinion is a victory for mothers, babies, and federalism,” he wrote. “Laws regarding reproductive rights for all Americans must be applied to protect the life of the mother and the unborn child.”

Buck also said that Dobbs will not affect other SCOTUS cases, such as Obergefell v. Hodges, Griswold v. Connecticut, and Lawrence v. Texas — the cases directly referenced in Thomas’ concurrence.

“The broader right to privacy as discussed in those cases does not involve the critical moral question posed by Roe and Casey,” Buck wrote, pointing to the majority opinion’s assurance about other rights.

Rep. Terri Sewell ’86 (D-Ala.), Sen. Jeff Merkley GS ’82 (D-Ore.), and Sen. Ted Cruz ’92 (R-Texas.) did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.

Some Princeton alumni in power have spoken publicly on reproductive rights over the course of the past months, including at a Reunions panel dedicated to “Civil Rights in America.” At the May 20 panel, Anthony Romero ’87, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), warned of a post-Roe America.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat what’s in front of us,” Romero said at the panel. “The fall of Roe v. Wade will be the center of the house of cards collapsing, where most of the rights and liberties I spent my whole life fighting for are in peril.”

The ACLU director said that while he “respect[s] and honor[s]” the wide diversity of opinion on the issue of abortion itself, there’s a line in the sand with Alito’s then-leaked draft opinion.

“I usually show respect for the Supreme Court and its Justices, because that is the way I was raised,” Romero said. “Except it’s very hard to read that opinion and have any modicum of respect at all.”

In an interview with the ‘Prince’ following the forum, Romero discussed the implications of the draft resolution on Princeton students and the role the University should play in helping students navigate abortion services.

“I worry more about the students who come from the states that will outlaw abortion,” he said, “and so access to those services when they’re back home or on summer break or winter break will be something the University is going to have to help them think through, providing financial assistance, and the ability to come back and consult with doctors and medical professionals here.”

For Romero, the need for student activism on this issue is more prescient than ever.

“Long term, there has to be a political solution to this cataclysm of the Supreme Court,” he told the ‘Prince’ at the time. “It’s not through the courts anymore, it’s through political activism, political mobilization.”

Students with questions about University healthcare coverage as it pertains to reproductive healthcare should reach out to University Health Services (UHS) at (609) 258-3141.

This story is breaking and will continue to be updated as more information becomes available.

Staff News Writer Sullivan Meyer contributed reporting to this piece.

Isabel Yip is an Assistant News Editor who typically covers University Affairs and student life. She can be reached at isabelyip@princeton.edu or on Instagram at @isaayip.

Lia Opperman is an Assistant News Editor who often covers University affairs, student life, and local news. She can be reached at liaopperman@princeton.edu, on Instagram @liamariaaaa, or on Twitter @oppermanlia.

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