Daily Herald opinion: Court's decision will have long-term impact on more than just abortion

This editorial represents the consensus opinion of the Daily Herald Editorial Board

The immediate reactions to the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to end a woman's constitutional right to abortion have followed predictable paths, celebrated by those who oppose abortion, excoriated by those who believe the decision to terminate a pregnancy should be left to a woman and her doctor.

But, as profound as those divisions are, the court's action has opened a period of uncertainty with other important and far-reaching implications.

For, in eliminating a right that likely most American women alive today have held their entire lives, the court has also widened a path that could lead to momentous decisions on everything from the right of people to choose whom they marry to the right of parents to decide whether local school boards can require their children to wear masks at school.

The authority of judicial precedent, in short, has been greatly weakened, and that poses the potential for a highly disheveled, perhaps even legally chaotic, future in America.

Not that precedent has ever been sacrosanct. One of the most important legal rulings in the history of American public education, the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision requiring equality of opportunity in schools, reversed a more-than-half-century-old case - Plessy vs. Ferguson - that had permitted school segregation on the basis of a "separate but equal" doctrine. Historian David Schultz, of the University of Minnesota, notes that the court has overturned precedent frequently in the past 60 years, though he adds that of 25,544 Supreme Court decisions issued between 1789 and 2020, only 145 were reversed.

At least one current Supreme Court justice is eager to add to that number. Although the author of the Roe-reversal opinion, Justice Samuel Alito, takes pains to suggest it should not be read to threaten court decisions on other social issues, Justice Clarence Thomas was quick to suggest the exact opposite and welcome opportunities to revisit cases that have established rights to same-sex marriage, contraception and more.

Alito asserts that establishing the "right" to abortion now returns to state legislatures, where, he says, women "are not without electoral or political power."

It may be true that this court decision is directed squarely at the issue of abortion, but we also know that making abortion rights a matter of purely political considerations is likely to bring about volatility and unpredictability as the states deal with the issue individually. For those of us longing for stability and certainty in the law, it raises the disturbing specter of a very combative and erratic future.

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