The Supreme Court's minor mistakes have few systemic consequences. But when the Supremes make a big mistake, the error tends to seep throughout the entire political process, poisoning everything in its path.
That was what happened with the Court's 1857 Dred Scott decision, which intensified the passions and accelerated the dynamics that led to the Civil War -- and to 600,000 Americans killing each other. That was what happened when the Court got it wrong again in Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 decision that declared segregated public facilities constitutional: three-and-a-half generations of American politics were distorted by a fierce struggle between segregationists and integrationists, with the Democratic Party held hostage to its fever-swamp wing.
And that is what happened with Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized abortion on demand across the country. Ever since, the abortion issue has been the most bitterly contested in our public life, and Roe has distorted everything from free speech to religious freedom to health care legislation (dental insurers are being queried by federal regulators as to whether their coverage includes abortion--dental insurers!). Those distortions confirm that the Court got it fundamentally wrong in 1973.
The forces that defend Roe v. Wade know the fragility of that "exercise in raw judicial power" (as Justice Byron White, dissenting from the Roe majority, put it). That is why they defend it with such fury -- and with arguments that are increasingly absurd. Those absurdities were on full display in late May when the U.S. House of Representatives took up the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act. PRENDA's purpose is to ban sex-selection abortions in the United States -- which almost always means aborting unborn girls for the simple reason that they are girls.
This odious practice, a commonplace in Asia (where there are estimates of some 160 million "missing" females), is not, yet, widespread in the United States. But one sex-selection abortion is one too many, and the attitude to this war on little women within the billion dollar abortion industry is chilling: a Planned Parenthood representative told the Huffington Post, prior to the House vote on PRENDA, that "No Planned Parenthood clinic will deny a woman an abortion based on her reasons for wanting one, except in states that explicitly prohibit sex-selection abortions." As Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ) put it in an op-ed piece in the Washington Post, "In other words, Planned Parenthood is okay with exterminating a child in its huge network of clinics simply because she's a girl."