by Rachel Easter, Legal Fellow, National Women’s Law Center
Over the last five years, politicians have enacted an onslaught of abortion restrictions—more than 280 throughout the country. Politicians designed these laws to make it more difficult— often impossible—for women to access abortion, jeopardizing a woman’s constitutional right to decide whether to have an abortion. The state of Texas has been at the center of anti-abortion efforts with HB 2, a law passed in 2013 that has already closed more than half of the clinics in the state, leaving some Texas women hundreds of miles from the closest clinic. This term, the Supreme Court will hear a challenge to parts of the Texas law in Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole, the Court’s first major abortion case in nearly a decade.
With this case, the Court has the opportunity to reaffirm that women have a fundamental right to abortion and make clear that right is rooted in both liberty and equality. The right to abortion is part of a line of cases recognizing that matters “involving the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime” are “central to personal dignity and autonomy.” That principle underlies constitutional protection for parental rights, the right to access contraception and abortion, and the right to marriage. These cases have traditionally been understood to stem from the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment, but the constitutional principles of liberty and equality are fundamentally connected. The Court’s decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey recognizes the interrelated nature of Due Process and Equal Protection. In that case, the important truth that “[t]he ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the Nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives” played a key role in the Court’s decision to reaffirm women’s constitutionally protected right to abortion.
Since that case, the connection between liberty and equality has become more explicit. In Lawrence v. Texas, the Court struck down laws criminalizing certain sexual acts between two people of the same sex because the laws both perpetuated inequality and infringed on the liberty to control certain personal relationships. And in Obergefell v. Hodges the Court held that bans on same-sex marriage subordinate same-sex couples by denying them the rights and privileges of marriage, a denial that both burdens liberty interests and “abridge[s] central precepts of equality.” In that case, the Court made clear that Due Process and Equal Protection are “instructive as to the meaning and reach of the other.…[I]nterrelation of the two principles furthers our understanding of what freedom is and must become.” Looking at HB 2 through this lens, it is clear that the law unconstitutionally burdens women’s liberty and equality interests.