The June 24 overturning of Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) triggered a number of seismic legal reactions. Per CNBC, it prompted immediate abortion bans in several states, with more planning to quickly follow suit.
Few hot-button issues create the response seen in abortion debates. As such, the Supreme Court’s historic overturning of Roe v. Wade has generated an outpouring of reactions on social media from notable celebrities and regular citizens alike. So when the internet is buzzing with various opinions and potential misinformation regarding the public discussion on abortion, to what subject matter experts can people turn to learn about the rippling effects of Roe v. Wade?
For Murfreesboro residents, MTSU's U.S. constitutional amending process scholar Dr. John Vile is such an expert. Dr. Vile has been with MTSU since 1989 and has been involved in the writing and editing of an estimated 60 books. On top of serving as the Dean of the University Honors College, Dr. Vile’s career highlights include receipt of the MTSU Foundation Distinguished Research Award in both 1993 and 1999 and the Career Achievement Award in 2011. The American Mock Trial Association awarded Dr. Vile with the Congressman Neal Smith Award in 2000 and inducted him Coaches Hall of Fame in 2008 for legal education contributions.
Dr. Vile recently spoke to Murfreesboro Voice to describe his predictions of the consequences of Roe v. Wade's overturning. He breaks down his understanding of the recent SCOTUS decision, saying “According to the [SCOTUS] majority, the constitution is silent on abortion. Roe, therefore, had no legal authority to tell the states either to prohibit or to permit it… There was an article a day or two ago. And it said that the South and maybe Midwest would be ‘abortion deserts’… It very much depends on your perspective. But it looks like—chiefly in the South and Midwest—that most abortion procedures, maybe all… will be outlawed. In your eastern, northeastern, and probably your far western states—particularly California—it will continue. And then you have states like Pennsylvania and others, maybe Wisconsin, that will sort of fight it out.”
Putting his personal thoughts regarding abortion aside, Dr. Vile says that he is concerned about the constitutional impacts the Roe v. Wade correction will have. He worries about both the continuity of law, as well as the law’s many implications.
Dr. Vile says, “We know that prior to Roe v. Wade when people would carry their carry coat hangers around at these rallies, they didn't make that up. People died and were injured. Women died and were injured prior to Roe v. Wade.”
Thanks to the patchwork of abortion laws that are slated to take effect, he foresees that abortion access will vary for women based on socioeconomic status. This will entail “a good bit of interstate travel” for women wanting to get an abortion out of state.
So why was Roe v. Wade so tricky in the first place? As it stood before being overturned by the landmark decision in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Roe v. Wade was one of the only federal legal provisions for abortion in the U.S. Given the unique nature of abortion, there weren’t bound to be many references to the procedure within the Constitution.
Per Dr. Vile, “The opinion that Justice Alito wrote in the Dobbs case seems to indicate that the… relevant actors at this point are state legislatures. His view is that the Constitution neither provides the right of abortion nor—and he's very clear about this—nor prohibits abortion. In his judgment, there simply is no constitutional text. I'm not sure that everybody agrees with that.”
Because SCOTUS believes that a perceived right to abortion lacks constitutional authority, Dr. Vile is skeptical of any proposed laws that would attempt to introduce a federal right to abortion.
“There do seem to be some people in Congress right now who think that Congress could try to codify a law protecting abortion rights. And I just you know, with the court, I don't think Alito would accept that. I think Alito would say, ‘You can't do it without other constitutional authority,’” Dr. Vile says.
A divisive issue for some time, Dr. Vile says that the original ruling in Roe v. Wade may have helped polarize American politics even further.
He says, “There are some people—including Ruth Bader Ginsburg—who suggested that the court's original decision in Roe v. Wade may have, in fact, cut off discussion and compromise. We might have gotten to a very similar place by waiting a little bit longer and letting it work itself out.” Per Dr. Vile, part of this stemmed from the fact that most of a citizen’s rights had been nationalized in the 20th century.
The current status of abortion rights for Tennesseans looks grim. Abortion was scheduled to be banned on July 24, 2022. Shortly after the SCOTUS ruling, the office of Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery III filed an emergency motion to expedite statewide abortion restrictions. On top of the abortion ban, lawmakers are attempting to allow private residents to sue abortion providers.
Regarding medication alternatives to abortion procedures, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee signed a piece of legislation in May 2022 that would strictly regulate abortion medications. This bill will go into effect on January 1, 2023. President Joe Biden signed an executive order on July 8, 2022, as a response to the Roe v. Wade decision. This executive order “attempts to safeguard access to medication abortion and emergency contraception, protect patient privacy, launch public education efforts as well as bolster the security of and the legal options available to those seeking and providing abortion services.” The Plan B pill is still currently available to Tennesseans.
Those satisfied with the SCOTUS decision on Roe v. Wade may not spend so much time contemplating how abortion rights may be returned to pro-choice advocates. For those advocates, however, it’s the most pressing question. Dr. Vile does see a path forward for people being allowed to have access to abortions.
“I think much will depend on how effective enforcement is,” he says. “And if there are perceived negative consequences.”
Said enforcement of abortion bans may be problematic when Tennesseans go out of state. Dr. Vile doesn’t believe that Tennessee would be able to enforce such “abortion tourism.”
“Texas has a law which seems to suggest that if you drive somebody to an abortion clinic, you could be prosecuted or you could be civilly sued,” he shares. “I don't think that that will stand up to Supreme Court scrutiny… There is a constitutionally recognized right to travel. That right—like the right to an abortion—is not enumerated. It's an implied right… I think it would be very difficult to prevent somebody from leaving the state. Right now in most states that have [banned] abortion, women are in fact traveling to other states. And to my knowledge, they're not being prosecuted.”
While not a court decision, Dr. Vile offers the 18th Amendment as an example of how judicial and legislative powers can change their minds in light of different circumstances.
“This amendment had provided for national alcohol prohibition. And the perception—which I think is accurate—was that enforcement led to greater evils than alcohol itself. If there were a widespread perception—particularly after two or three years—that this has just reopened the wounds and no good has come of it, sure. You might be able to have a compromise….”
Specifically, Dr. Vile is referring to a scenario in which illegal abortions have become so problematic that both Republicans and Democrats feel compelled to draft an amenable solution.
For further information about Dr. John Vile—including how to contact him—readers may visit his website.