An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Fall 2012

Public Opinion & the Supreme Court: The Puzzling Case of Abortion

Linda Greenhouse
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The relationship between the Supreme Court and public opinion remains ambiguous, despite efforts over many years by scholars both of the Court and of mass behavior to decipher it. Certainly Supreme Court Justices live in the world, and are propelled by the political system to their life-tenured positions. And certainly the Court, over time, appears to align itself with the broadly defined public mood. But the mechanism by which this occurs–the process by which the Court and the public engage one another in a highly attenuated dialogue–remains obscure. The Court’s 1973 abortion decision, Roe v. Wade, offers a case in point. As the country began to reconsider the wisdom of the nineteenth-century criminalization of abortion, which voices did the Justices hear and to which did they respond? Probing beneath the surface of the public response to Roe serves to highlight rather than solve the puzzle.

LINDA GREENHOUSE, a Fellow of the American Academy since 1994 and a member of the Academy’s Council, is the Joseph Goldstein Lecturer in Law at Yale Law School. For thirty years, she covered the U.S. Supreme Court for The New York Times; she received the Pulitzer Prize in Journalism in 1998. Her publications include The U.S. Supreme Court: A Very Short Introduction (2012), Before Roe v. Wade: Voices that Shaped the Abortion Debate Before the Supreme Courts Ruling (edited with Reva B. Siegel, 2010), and Becoming Justice Blackmun: Harry Blackmuns Supreme Court Journey (2005).