Monumental Progression or Another Historic Shift? A Preliminary Discussion on Abortion based on Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton

Sep 6, 2021
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The Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton cases are among the most significant, groundbreaking cases in the United States. Abortion, prior to the cases, was a stringently regulated act, in line perhaps with the current dominant sociocultural climate at the time. The advent of these two cases saw a break in the imposed peace of the climate, delving on the question of the constitutionality of abortion and seemingly providing the adequate response upon the matter. The question that still persists to this day, however, is why on-going debates still continue despite the monumental decisions brought forth by the two cases. A closer inspection provides a clear yet unsettling answer: the Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton cases did not give a definitive answer to the morality of abortion but the impetus to the unrelenting avenue of inquiry that encompasses not just the act of abortion but of ethics itself and the notion of relativism that encompasses both constitutionality and morality.

Plain with the Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton cases is that they, first and foremost, touch upon the constitutionality of abortion. 1970s United States saw the implementation of laws that attempted to regulate abortion as a rising social issue, as is the case in Roe v. Wade, and as a medical procedure, as it is in Doe v. Bolton.

Taking place in Texas, Roe v. Wade revolved around the existing abortion law in Texas at the time, which banned all abortions unless if it was done to save the mother’s life. Jane Roe, the appellant of the case, forwarded that the current statutes in place during her time infringe upon her right to privacy, protected by the First, Fourth, Fifth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments. In dissent to her case was former Justice William Rehnquist, who held that the right to privacy and the supposed right to abortion cannot be related because the latter is not universally accepted whereas the former is, referencing historical precedence during the Victorian era where abortion laws were put into place to reduce promiscuity in society. Mentioned, too, was the current medical technology that was inadequate - and, thus, detrimental - to the mother’s health, as well as the State’s interest to protect children in the womb. Rehnquist’s position, however, was dismantled because of social, medical, and legal progression throughout the course of history until that point, such that the precedents upon which he grounded his argumentation were then moot and outdated - perhaps telling of the current climate of the United States as a whole - and the Court ruled in favor of Jane Roe, abolishing the current abortion law in Texas in order to reintegrate Roe’s proposed right to privacy of women for an abortion.

In the same year, the state of Georgia bore witness to its own historic abortion case in Doe v. Bolton. This case, however, focused more on the medical policies on abortion, and so acts as a sort of footnote case to Roe v. Wade as far as the range of the issue surrounding abortion is concerned. The appellant, Mary Doe, forwards five main points of contention, all revolving around the medical procedure stipulated upon abortion: first, that abortions can only be conducted in hospitals instead of smaller abortion clinics; second, that abortions have special accreditation; third, that a special committee, specifically for abortion, is needed for its approval; fourth, that an additional two more authorized doctors outside the patient’s own main doctor are needed for their approval, and; lastly, that only residents of Georgia are allowed to have abortions in the state. All of which are observed with abortion when no other medical procedure observes such special conduct, and so violate the Fourteenth Amendment right where every citizen of the United States is entitled to the “equal protection of the law.” Given this discovery, the Court ruled in Doe’s favor, as it did in Roe’s.

The rulings were controversial but convincing. The cases brought forth by Jane Roe and Mary Doe are both well-grounded on the Constitution. However, no mistake should be made that Constitutionality equates to morality. This is one of the first glaring questions spawned by the cases on abortion: to what can Constitutionality match the essence of morality? Rich is the historical precedence underlying this problem alone, from the Jim Crowe laws that propagated racial segregation to the later blatant sexist discrimination as indicated in the lack of laws that protect women’s rights. Deeper than this, however, is a much more general question, that of morality itself. Racism and sexism are generally black-and-white; no doubt that to commit racist and sexist discrimination is immoral in themselves. Abortion, however, is highly complex in relation to its ethical value. Some would claim that abortion is immoral because it entails the planned, unconsented deprivation of life within the womb. At the same time, others would claim that to deprive the woman herself from the right to will upon herself what she wishes is itself immoral, as the emphasis on the right to privacy and to oneself has already been established in modern society.

This, again, spawns more questions: whose moral code is to be followed? And why should it be followed? Because it serves the interests of all and not only some? Or because it is what the majority hold? The concepts of constitutionality and even ethics further breaks down in the face of this line of inquiry. The establishment of the notion of constitutionality, it turns out, is itself an attempt to objectivity when it is rooted in relativity. Once more, history gives much to testament: the Jim Crow laws is an indication of the predominantly held system of ethics at the time. Yet, a citizen of such a time cannot be blamed entirely for upholding such a belief; it is what is regarded as the ethics of the time. This can be seen even further in Eskimo culture, in a behavior very similar to abortion. Modern society deems infanticide horrific and vile, yet eskimoes do it regularly. An indication of primitive morality? No: eskimos commit infanticide not because of some hatred against human babies but out of practical reasons. Given the harsh climate of the time, it is difficult to be able to feed a large population, and so infanticide, as a means of control not only of population but of rations, is sought after. Should eskimos be held at a low regard for doing such a thing, in the light of this? To affirm that they should be is to speak from one’s own predominantly held ethical framework, when they, too, acting in their own system.

Thus, the question of relativity: how does the modern notion of constitutionality stand in the midst of many ethical frameworks? Today, the issue surrounding abortion sees two dominant sides of the debate, pro-life and pro-choice, each having their own say on the matter - each trying to impose their own ethical framework. While one may perceive this as a noble battle for objective morality, it can also be seen as relativism hard at work. One cannot declare one side right without being, himself, a proponent of attempting to establish that belief as objective. In some way, this is reminiscent of the debates on which ethical system in philosophy canon is best. Yet, while utilitarianism and the categorical imperative are each respected in how they attempt to interpret morality in terms of reality as a whole, pro-life and pro-choice seem to provide a two-only-choice set on a black-and-white situation.

What, therefore, can be the true answer? Given the current state of things, it is practically impossible to discern. Abortion is an act that can be both defended and refuted. In fact, the current issue on the matter makes any other act also capable of being defended and refuted. Is it because of ethical progression throughout history that saw the widespread efforts of abolishing racism and sexism? Or is it not an ethical progression but a shift from one proclaimed objective morality to another proclaimed objective morality? This writing is not purposed to provide an answer to any of the posed questions. Rather, it is an attempt to highlight the significance of the Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton cases and the very issue of abortion itself. What is to be proclaimed in confidence, however, is that an objective morality, one that can truly touch the essence of morality that protects all involved, is possible. The idea itself has been conceived, and so it can be hoped to be attainable. But given the current climate of the matter, the issue of abortion, and the questions spawned from it, is nigh impossible to resolve definitively without an outcry from either side. This does not mean, however, that no good option is spared, that no efforts are worth being made to resolve the underlying issue. Compromise seems to be the only plausible option here and, hopefully, the best possible one at that.

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