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Fact-checking 5 claims in the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion on Roe v. Wade

PolitiFact | Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito at times omitted details that might lead someone to reach different conclusions.
The Supreme Court Building is seen in Washington, Wednesday, May 4, 2022, as security measure are enhanced on the perimeter following protests sparked by news that the court might overturn cases that guarantee abortions.
The Supreme Court Building is seen in Washington, Wednesday, May 4, 2022, as security measure are enhanced on the perimeter following protests sparked by news that the court might overturn cases that guarantee abortions. [ J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE | AP ]
Published May 4

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade is over 90 pages long. But Alito wasted little time getting to his key point.

“The Constitution makes no reference to abortion, and no such right is implicitly protected by any constitutional provision,” he wrote.

The entire draft opinion was leaked to Politico, an almost unheard-of breach of Supreme Court secrecy. In a statement, Chief Justice John Roberts said it was authentic as he called for an investigation into “this betrayal.” The draft was written in February, and there could be small or significant changes as other justices weigh in before a final decision.

The outcome of this draft opinion would end the national right to an abortion and return to the pre-Roe world, where states set their own laws. The Mississippi law at the center of the court’s pending ruling banned abortion after 15 weeks, except to protect the life of the woman, or if there was “a serious risk of substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function.”

Alito drilled into abortion law history back to the 13th century. He dissected the Constitution’s key amendments, and the handful of times the Supreme Court rejected long-standing decisions.

Along the way, as any jurist would, he brought in facts. We examined several of them and found that Alito had a pattern of omitting details that might lead someone to reach different conclusions.

“At the time of enactment (of Mississippi’s law) only six countries besides the United States permitted non therapeutic or elective abortion-on-demand after the twentieth week of gestation.”

This is partially accurate.

In a footnote, Alito lists Canada, China, the Netherlands, North Korea, Singapore and Vietnam, and then notes that another study added Iceland and Guinea-Bissau. But defining what constitutes a non-therapeutic, elective abortion is complicated. Many European nations, for example, have broad exceptions that allow abortions after the 20th week to protect the mother’s welfare. That group includes Germany, Great Britain, Norway, Ukraine, Spain and many others.

When Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves made a related claim solely about European nations, we rated it Half True.

“At the time of Roe, 30 States still prohibited abortion at all stages. …. at the time of the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment, over three quarters of the States had adopted statutes criminalizing abortion (usually at all stages of pregnancy).”

This history lacks important context.

Among other changes, the 14th Amendment said that no state shall “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” It’s a powerful protection, and it’s been linked to abortion rights. The historians we reached said Alito’s numbers are largely correct, though by the time the 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868, doctors had been pushing for over a decade to criminalize abortion as part of a campaign to professionalize medicine.

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“The doctors’ targets were midwives and others who were not licensed,” said Peter Hoffer, professor of history at the University of Georgia. “It was necessary to protect the health of women, as abortion at that time was not a particularly safe procedure.”

Early term abortions were common, said University of Illinois historian Leslie Reagan. Abortion bans might have been on the books, but they were largely ignored.

“They were prosecuted when women died,” Reagan said. “In the rare case of a prosecution where no one died, juries usually nullified the law and refused to convict for the abortion itself.”

There were also times when families sued abortionists for damages, and won, Reagan said.

Demonstrators protest outside of the U.S. Supreme Court, Tuesday, May 3, 2022, in Washington.
Demonstrators protest outside of the U.S. Supreme Court, Tuesday, May 3, 2022, in Washington. [ ALEX BRANDON | AP ]

“It is noteworthy that the percentage of women who register to vote and cast ballots is consistently higher than the percentage of men who do.”

Alito is correct that U.S. women turn out to vote at higher rates than men, which has been the trend over recent decades.

He was citing women’s higher turnout rates to argue that women “on both sides of the abortion issue” can influence the state legislative process by voting. In 2021, the trend in states was toward passing more abortion restrictions.

In 2020, the share of voting women was 68 percent and voting men was 65 percent, according to a Census Bureau survey. Researchers cite various reasons, such as that women “are more likely to rely on government services and are often more directly affected by highly debated issues like reproductive rights, child care/family leave, among others,” Kelly Dittmar, a Rutgers political scientist, previously told PolitiFact.

Julie A. Wronski, associate professor of political science at the University of Mississippi, however, said the argument misses context: “The context is that the types of women voting in (Mississippi) lean Republican. And abortion attitudes are polarized by party identity.”

Members of the Supreme Court pose for a group photo at the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on April 23, 2021. Seated from left: Associate Justice Samuel Alito, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, Chief Justice John Roberts, Associate Justice Stephen Breyer and Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Standing from left: Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Associate Justice Elena Kagan, Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch and Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett.
Members of the Supreme Court pose for a group photo at the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on April 23, 2021. Seated from left: Associate Justice Samuel Alito, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, Chief Justice John Roberts, Associate Justice Stephen Breyer and Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Standing from left: Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Associate Justice Elena Kagan, Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch and Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett. [ ERIN SCHAFF-POOL | (Erin Schaff-Pool/Getty Images/T ]

The due process clause of the 14th Amendment “has been held to guarantee some rights that are not mentioned in the Constitution, but any such right must be ‘deeply rooted in this nation’s history and tradition.’”

Alito was quoting in part from Washington v. Glucksberg, a 1997 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found a state is permitted under the 14th Amendment to pass a law prohibiting assisted suicide.

The Washington state ruling said, in part: “First, the court has regularly observed that the clause specially protects those fundamental rights and liberties which are, objectively, deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition. … An examination of our Nation’s history, legal traditions, and practices demonstrates that Anglo-American common law has punished or otherwise disapproved of assisting suicide for over 700 years.”

But Alito ignores that the court hasn’t always held rights to that standard since the Glucksberg case, said Evan D. Bernick, Northern Illinois University College of Law professor and expert on the 14th Amendment. In Obergefell v. Hodges, the same-sex marriage case decided in 2015, the court didn’t apply the Glucksberg test, he said.

In the ruling for the same-sex marriage case, Justice Anthony Kennedy said for the majority that some cases in the past about marriage — such as Loving v. Virginia, which ruled that laws banning interracial marriage were unconstitutional — did not rely on past historical preferences.

Loving did not ask about a ‘right to interracial marriage,’” Kennedy wrote. “Rather, each case inquired about the right to marry in its comprehensive sense, asking if there was a sufficient justification for excluding the relevant class from the right.”

“It is beyond dispute” that the legalization of abortion reduced the size of the Black population. “A highly disproportionate percentage of aborted fetuses are black.”

Alito pointed to data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention for 2019. It showed that 38 percent of women who had abortions were Black, 33 percent white, 21 percent Hispanic and 7 percent other.

The data are reported voluntarily by providers to state or area health departments and therefore information may be incomplete and result in undercounting abortions, notes Kaiser Family Foundation. The data excludes 23 reporting areas (states plus New York City) that did not report, did not report by race/ethnicity, or did not meet reporting standards.

Alito’s statement lacks context about why there are racial differences in abortion rates. Susan Cohen, a former vice president at the Guttmacher Institute, an organization that supports abortion rights, in 2008 wrote that anti-abortion activists have pointed to the race data “falsely asserting that the disparity is the result of aggressive marketing by abortion providers to minority communities.”

Cohen wrote that the variation in abortion rates across racial and ethnic groups relates “to the variation in the unintended pregnancy rates across those same groups.”

The National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda, a national group that supports reproductive rights, has said Black women are more likely to lack access to comprehensive sex education and contraception, and “as a consequence, they experience higher rates of unintended pregnancy than women of any other ethnic or racial group.”

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