Friday, April 20, 2007

Happy Birthday to Justice Stevens

Justice John Paul Stevens turns 87 today. He is a remarkably sharp human being for any age, but still, that number gives one pause. In keeping with yesterday's theme of quoting other abortion opinions, I thought I'd excerpt here the closing paragraph of Justice Blackmun's concurrence in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. He stated: "I am 83 years old. I cannot remain on this Court forever, and when I do step down, the confirmation process for my successor well may focus on the issue before us today."

Some people criticized Justice Blackmun at the time for expressly politicizing the issue, but the criticism seems to miss the mark because everybody already knew the issue was politicized, and both the plurality (actually the majority on this point) and the dissent talked about the interaction between politics and the Court's jurisprudence.

It will be interesting to see whether and how Wednesday's decision plays politically. I have always understood "partial birth abortion" as a wedge issue. Someone who is truly pro-life can't possibly think that killing a baby after it's partially delivered is much worse than killing it inside its mother's womb, but people who are on the fence or pro-choice with reservations could be moved to think (if only, as Judge Posner noted, through ignorance) that there is something especially horrific about this class of abortions. That's why, after all, partial-birth abortion bans were enacted even in states with pro-choice majorities. To the extent that yesterday's decision approves the federal ban, perhaps it neutralizes this particular wedge issue, which ought to favor pro-choice candidates. In fact, however, I think the likely effect will be to motivate both pro-life and pro-choice activists, as they realize that Roe itself may be on the table after one more appointment.

But the main point of this post is simply to say happy birthday to Justice Stevens.

12 comments:

Benjam said...

I really think Posner and Dorf both miss something important in this debate when they suggest that the divergent public perceptions between "normal" versus D and X abortions result solely from ignorance or emotionalism.

Posner says that D and X abortions are prohibited:

not because the procedure kills the fetus, not because it risks worse complications for the woman than alternative procedures would do, not because it is a crueler or more painful or more disgusting method of terminating a pregnancy...

Dorf says:

Someone who is truly pro-life can't possibly think that killing a baby after it's partially delivered is much worse than killing it inside its mother's womb...

Wikipedia defines PBA as:

Partial-birth abortion (PBA) is a non-medical term used to refer to In the United States, "Partial-birth abortion" has been legally defined by federal statute as any abortion in which the fetus is extracted "past the navel [of the fetus] . . . outside the body of the mother," or "in the case of head-first presentation, the entire fetal head is outside the body of the mother," before the fetus is terminated.

I agree that the procedure has been exploited as a wedge issue by pro-life force and I also agree that there is a great deal of misinformation. At the same time, I think there is something more disgusting about D&X and that a pro-life person can think D&X is morally worse than a normal abortion.

Proximity is the key here. How close is this fetus to being a person? It seems that some of these procedures are about 2 minutes removed from infanticide. No one would deny that infanticide is different. Most people see the moral "bad" of an abortion as inversely proportional to the proximity of the fetus to life outside the womb. It is a continuum. On the one end is an early-term abortion of a cluster of cells and on the other end of the continuum is a baby hanging out of its mother which can either be swaddled and nursed or cut into pieces. As we move toward the end of the continuum where the fetus is closer to life outside the womb, each step farther down that continuum becomes morally excruciating, especially for people who aren't ideologiclly committed on the issue. It seems to me that these concerns about D and X can be based in conventional notions of morality and not simply the product of ignorance or emotionalism. What am I missing?

egarber said...

One thing I always find interesting is the knee-jerk assumptions folks tend to have about justices, based on their singular role in landmark decisions.

Hearing some people talk, you'd think Blackmun was a liberal crusader across the board. But he wrote a dissent in the Pentagon Papers case that was rather friendly to prior restraints, at least compared to those in the Floyd Abrams camp on First Amendment issues.

Adam P. said...

Oh Wikipedia....

Happy Birthday to Justice Stevens, and many happy returns.... And by many, I mean at least 2.

Benjam said...

well said, adam. maybe a bit cynical but well said. i wonder what happens if one of the liberal justices dies or retires sometime in september or october of 2008. or what if there is a new president elect at the time of the resignation. my guess is simply that the senate would refuse to act until the new president was chosen. does anyone know if there are historical precedents for either situation?

Sobek said...

adam, I chuckled a bit at your birthday salutation, and then wondered if (from your perspective) only one happy return might not be the best outcome.

Apologies in advance if anyone finds the following an overly casual discussion of politics v. mortality.

If Stevens dies in late 2008, say around September, his successor will be nominated by an extremely lame-duck President Bush and approved or rejected by a Senate that is (a) majority Democrat and (b) filled with Democrats who remember that they were very recently unable to stop Roberts and Alito. In other words, both hostile and highly motivated. I'd say that under the circumstances, the best Bush could hope for would be an extremely squishy moderate or a stealth nominee (i.e. another potential Souter). Whereas if Stevens lives past the '08 elections, if the Dems retain the Senate (which I believe they will, simply as a numbers game) and the Repubs keep the White House, the President might have both the stamina and the popularity to force a more solidly conservative pick through the Senate.

One alternative is for Bush to not nominate anyone at all, and let the clock run out on his term to wait for the next Republican President. This only works if Bush knows who the next President will likely be. If it looks like the Dems will take the White House, he'll probably prefer a squishy moderate over a hard-core liberal.

Another alternative is to go with the "interim Pope" maneuver. When the college of cardinals couldn't come to a consensus, very often they picked an old guy who was only expected to live a few years and not have much impact, so the chief contenders could try to get themselves into a better position to negotiate the next time around.

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