THE COURT’S MORALITY PLAY: THE PUNISHMENT LENS, SEX, AND ABORTION

June Carbone, Naomi Cahn

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

This Article uncovers the hidden framework for the Supreme Court’s approach to public values, a framework that has shaped—and will continue to shape—the abortion debate. The Court has historically used a “punishment lens” to allow the evolution of moral expression in the public square, without enmeshing the Court itself in the underlying values debate. The punishment lens allows a court to redirect attention by focusing on the penalty rather than the potentially inflammatory subject for which the penalty is being imposed, regardless of whether the subject is contraception, abortion, Medicaid expansion, or pretrial detention. This Article is unique in discussing the circumstances in which the Court has simultaneously concluded that the state could regulate but could not punish, even if that means redefining a sanction as not punitive. By making visible this framework, we offer the Court and the states a potential off-ramp from the continuation of an ugly and litigious future on abortion access. If the Supreme Court seeks to deflect the outrage over Dobbs, the simplest way to do so would be to take seriously the statement that all it has to do is to return the issue to the states. In that case, the Court’s focus should be, as Justice Kavanaugh suggested in his concurrence, on the impermissibility of punishment that infringes on established rights, independent of a right to abortion, such as the right to travel, the First Amendment right to communicate accurate information about abortion availability, or doctors’ efforts to perform therapeutic abortions necessary to preserve a pregnant person’s health. The Court would not pass judgment on the permissibility of abortion, and it could affirm the propriety of state bans, but still strike down heavy-handed prosecutions and ill-defined prohibitions that impose undue penalties.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1101-1156
Number of pages56
JournalSouthern California Law Review
Volume96
Issue number5
StatePublished - Mar 2024

Bibliographical note

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