I spend a lot of time in my bioethics classes trying to teach my students something important: most of our actions have more than one intention behind them. That is, if we are trying to figure “the” reason why someone does something—especially in a complex situation that involves many different kinds of values—we are bound to miss an essential aspect of what’s going on.
This is certainly true of the Texas abortion law struck down Monday by the Supreme Court.
In asking for abortion clinics to be regulated as other outpatient surgical centers, and asking physicians who perform abortions to have admitting privileges in the local hospital, Texas certainly had the intention of making things better for women.
If women have to be physically carried out of the clinic into an ambulance after a botched abortion because there is not enough room in the hallway for a gurney, or physicians disappear after the abortion goes wrong and the hospital has no idea about the patient’s medical history, this is obviously very bad for women.
But pro-lifers should be honest about something else. Another part of the intention behind the Texas law came from their knowing Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers — despite being flush with cash — would close clinics in Texas rather than bringing them up to code. And they knew these laws would save the lives of prenatal children.
Supporting Donald Trump is doing enough damage to the integrity of the pro-lifers; the movement should be direct and honest about the fact that the Texas law had the intention of protecting women’s health, yes, but it also was enacted in an attempt to reduce abortion access.
News reports are claiming that the Supreme Court’s rejection of the Texas law is an earthquake. After all, pro-lifers tried to restrict abortion access and those efforts were rejected by the Court. Pro-choicers are claiming a huge victory, and pro-lifers are reacting defensively.
But are these reactions based on the evidence of what was decided by the Court today?
Short answer: not really. In reading the actual opinion, rather than spinning it for political gain, it is clear that both the majority opinion and the dissent are actually focusing on legal technicalities rather than answering large questions about abortion rights.
The ruling did not say that the Texas law was unconstitutional because any law which leads to a large number of clinics closing in Texas necessarily poses an “undue burden on a woman’s right to abortion”—the new standard for pro-life laws to avoid after Planned Parenthood v. Casey replaced Roe v. Wade.
Instead, the ruling said that the state of Texas was not able to show that the laws benefited women in such a way that the burden of abortion clinics closing was justified.
The legal argument in the decision surrounds how, precisely, the Supreme Court should have thought about the evidence surrounding the Texas laws’ impact on women’s health.
Should the Court give deference to what the Texas legislature found? Should they consider only evidence presented in court? Should they consider evidence outside of what was presented in Court? Should they send the case back to Texas so more evidence could be presented?
These are legal technicalities which go well beyond my pay-grade. One thing is certain, however: the answers to such questions do not get at the heart of the abortion debate.
Indeed, it is worth noting that the Court seems open to similar laws being found constitutional if they can be clearly shown to benefit women—even if the laws result in a significant number of abortion clinics closing.
And here’s more evidence that this ruling does nothing substantial to advance the moral and legal debate over abortion, particularly as it is being argued in the country right now. Several state laws, including Texas, have recently passed bans on abortion beyond 20 weeks of pregnancy. Despite it being a common sense law, favored even by 60 percent of women, it is absolutely despised by abortion-rights groups.
But the abortion-rights groups which challenged the Texas laws refused to touch the 20 week ban. Why? Because they were rightly afraid they would lose.
They decided to challenge different aspects of Texas law because they were more likely to win, and be able to spin the win as a momentous victory for abortion rights.
But this decision is ruling on something much closer to a technicality than a fundamental decision on abortion morality and law in the United States.
The big case will come when the 20-week ban is challenged and taken up by the Supreme Court. Such a case would take us back to the fundamental questions of the abortion debate.
Given the number of states passing this kind of legislation, it is only a matter of time before we get a decision that would properly be called an earthquake.
Charles C. Camosy teaches bioethics at Fordham University and is author of Beyond the Abortion Wars.