Fall 2018

The Supreme Court & Science: A Case in Point

Linda Greenhouse

When it comes to science and technology, Supreme Court justices resemble lay people in robes, often ill-equipped to grasp fully the implications of the important cases they are asked to decide on scientific subjects. The justices approach science not in the abstract, of course, but from within the doctrinal area in which the particular dispute arises, whether intellectual property, criminal law, or the First Amendment's protection of free speech. The Supreme Court's abortion jurisprudence offers a particularly interesting and consequential example of the Court's encounter with science: a prolonged encounter, since from the beginning, the Court viewed women's claim to reproductive freedom through a medicalized lens. In recent years, states wishing to curb access to abortion have claimed health justifications for placing novel and onerous restrictions on abortion providers. In Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt, decided in June 2016, the Court invalidated one such effort, a Texas law, on the ground that the claimed health benefits were insufficient to justify the predictably massive shrinkage of the medical infrastructure necessary for women to be able to exercise their constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy. Evidence-based law met evidence-based medicine in a decision that demonstrated a new willingness by the Court to insist on good science in the area of abortion, and perhaps beyond.

LINDA GREENHOUSE, a Fellow of the American Academy since 1994 and a member of the Academy's Council and its Committee on Studies and Publications, is the Joseph Goldstein Lecturer in Law at Yale Law School. She is also President of the American Philosophical Society. She covered the Supreme Court for The New York Times from 1978 to 2008 and continues to write a biweekly column on law as a contributing columnist for The New York Times website. She is the author, most recently, of Just a Journalist: On the Press, Life, and the Spaces Between (2017).

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