David B. Tibbals, MJLST Staff
Apparently Daniel Patrick Moynihan wasn’t referring to the legal profession when he argued that “everyone is entitled to his own opinions, but not his own facts.”
This past week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit issued its ruling in Planned Parenthood v. Abbott, taking exception to the district court’s version of the facts. The court’s ruling upheld some provisions of House Bill 2, the Texas law that inspired the hours-long filibuster by Texas state senator Wendy Davis.
In an opinion authored by Judge Edith Jones, the court ruled as constitutional the law’s requirement of doctors to have admitting privileges at a hospital within thirty miles of wherever they perform an abortion procedure. With a critical view of the district court’s factual assessment, the court held that the thirty-mile admitting-privileges requirement does not “affect a significant (much less “large”) fraction of . . . women, and it imposes on other women in Texas less of a burden than the waiting-period provision upheld in Casey.”
Likewise, the court upheld the law’s proscription of off-label usage of abortion-inducing prescription drugs. Despite a claim that this represented the complete embargo of what may be the only safe abortion procedure for some women, the court characterized this as speculation, cautioning that courts “must base decisions on facts, not hypothesis and speculation.” And, as has been noted in this journal, “while FDA-approved indications cannot be construed to limit medical judgment, states . . . may enact legislation forcing compliance with such indications.”
Given the general awareness of the case, an arguable circuit split, and the torrent of recent state abortion legislation, surely this case seems destined for the Supreme Court. But how can the nine justices possibly reach a conclusion if the two lower courts couldn’t even agree on the facts? Didn’t the Roe Court argue that abortion law must be “free of emotion and of predilection,” premised on factual objectivity? Shouldn’t these questions be easy to answer?
The disagreement within this particular case reflects a greater problem within the nation’s abortion law canon. In the forty years since Roe, courts have struggled to consistently define just what virtues ought to guide abortion law.
Although the Court placed great emphasis on “now-established medical fact” from the outset, a closer look suggests that medical facts haven’t been treated nearly as sacred as one might believe. Indeed, as Forsythe and Kehr note, the factual record in Roe was very much abbreviated and curated: The Court’s ruling “was based on no factual record and no reliable medical data. The Justices did not analyze, let alone regulate, the contrary data; they simply ignored them.”
Over the last forty years, the Court has bandied about terms such as “advanced knowledge” and “substantial medical authority,” suggesting the primacy of medical facts. But regardless of how it has treated the particular facts it has examined, the Court has also failed to consistently adhere to the fundamental objectivity professed in Roe. Although the Court felt its ruling in Casey reaffirmed Roe’s objectivity, its “undue burden” standard introduced a great deal of subjectivity into abortion law. As Justice Scalia articulated in Stenberg, what qualifies as an “undue burden” “cannot be demonstrated true or false by factual inquiry or legal reasoning.”
It is yet unclear whether Abbott will indeed make it to the Supreme Court. No matter your view on the legal status of abortion, this fundamental inconsistency in the application of factual standards ought to be distressing. It is vital that the Supreme Court clarify a jurisprudence once labeled by former Chief Justice Rehnquist as “a virtual Procrustean bed.”