Commentary Law and Policy

Is One-Sixth a ‘Large Fraction’ When It Comes to Our Constitutional Rights?

David S. Cohen & Jeffrey B. Bingenheimer

When the Supreme Court hears oral arguments Wednesday in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the most important abortion case before the Supreme Court in more than two decades, the resolution of the case may just come down to how the justices regard that fraction.

Read more of our coverage of ​Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt​ here.

This article is based on a new study published in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review Online

If we told you that one-sixth of pregnancies in the United States would result in the death of the pregnant person, would you consider that number a large fraction?

How about if one-sixth of your life savings were wiped away in a banking error? Would you think one-sixth was a large fraction then?

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When the Supreme Court hears oral arguments Wednesday in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the most important abortion case before the Supreme Court in more than two decades, the resolution of the case may just come down to how the justices regard that fraction.

At issue in the case is a Texas law that, among other provisions, would require doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at local hospitals and require abortion clinics to meet the exacting requirements of ambulatory surgical centers. If the law is allowed to go into effect, advocates say, all but nine or ten of the state’s abortion clinics will close. About 900,000 Texas women of reproductive age would have to travel more than 150 miles each way in order to reach one of those remaining clinics. With about 5.4 million women of reproductive age in the state, that would mean one-sixth of Texas’ women would face a serious obstacle in obtaining an abortion.

Why does it matter what fraction of women are affected? In a line of cases starting with Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992, the Supreme Court and other federal courts have ruled that an abortion restriction will be found unconstitutional if it constitutes an “undue burden” on a woman’s right to choose. The Court explained further that an undue burden exists when the law is a substantial obstacle for a “large fraction” of people who are subject to that restriction.

Casey involved a Pennsylvania law that would have required married women to notify their husbands before they got an abortion. The Court reasoned that this provision only really affected women who were not in trusting relationships with their husbands. Based on the evidence before the Court, many of those women were in abusive relationships—so for an unspecified large fraction of them, requiring them to tell their husbands would be a substantial obstacle. Thus, this part of the law was struck down as unconstitutional.

In Whole Woman’s Health, however, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the law, concluding that one-sixth is “nowhere near” a large fraction; in a separate case, the same court ruled that a restriction that does not fall on the “vast majority” of women can never be a large fraction. Whether the Supreme Court agrees with the Fifth Circuit on this issue could very well determine the outcome of Whole Woman’s Health.

So is one-sixth a large fraction? We considered this question in a new study we published in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review. In it, we argue that the Fifth Circuit ignored the common understanding of one-sixth and the concept “large fraction.” The Supreme Court needs to take this study’s findings into consideration.

In our study, we distributed an online questionnaire (which you can take at the link) to potential respondents through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk system. The questionnaire included a few questions about respondents’ demographic characteristics and political orientation. Of primary interest, however, were 12 scenarios that we asked respondents to read. Each scenario featured the fraction one-sixth, and after each, we asked respondents, “In this scenario, do you consider one-sixth to be a large fraction?” Respondents could answer “yes” or “no.” We randomized the order in which the scenarios were presented.

We ended up with a sample of 504 individuals. The sample was heterogeneous: 76 percent of participants self-identified as white, 9 percent Asian or Pacific Islander, 7 percent African-American, 3 percent Hispanic or Latino, and 5 percent mixed-race or other. Fifty-seven percent of respondents were male. They ranged in age from 18 to 76 years, with almost 70 percent being between 25 and 44 years old. What did we find?

First, it is easy to invent hypothetical scenarios in which the vast majority of people will describe one-sixth as a large fraction. When presented with a scenario in which one-sixth of tablets in a bottle of Tylenol were laced with the poison cyanide, 91 percent of respondents reported that one-sixth was a large fraction. When the scenario involved your boss requiring you to donate one-sixth of your take-home pay to her daughter’s elite private school, 93.5 percent of respondents did so.

Second, we found that changing key elements of otherwise similar scenarios can result in large differences in the proportion of respondents who described one-sixth as a large fraction. For example, we presented two scenarios, each of which involved a local business with 100 employees working at its main office. In one scenario, we said that the employees normally arrive on time, but that one day, one-sixth of them arrived to work late. In the alternate scenario, we said that one-sixth of employees of that business were killed one day in separate individual car accidents. When the scenario involved employees being late, only 28 percent of respondents described one-sixth as a large fraction; when it involved employees being killed in car accidents, fully 92 percent did so. Clearly, whether one-sixth is a large fraction depends heavily upon the baseline expectation in the scenario in which it is presented.

We also presented two politically charged scenarios, and examined how respondents’ tendency to describe one-sixth as a large fraction in these scenarios depended upon their own political orientation. One scenario mirrored closely the law at issue in Whole Woman’s Health: A state enacts a law that forces abortion clinics to close, and as a result, one-sixth of women of reproductive age would have to travel 150 miles or more to get to a clinic that remained open. A companion scenario involved a state law that forced gun stores to close, leaving one-sixth of the state’s adult residents 150 miles or more away from a gun store that remained open. Overall, 76 percent of respondents agreed that one-sixth was a large fraction in the abortion clinic scenario, whereas 52 percent did so in the gun store scenario.

What was most interesting, however, was how these responses varied according to respondents’ political orientation. We asked respondents to place themselves along a five-point scale, from very conservative to very liberal. In the abortion clinic scenario, 88 percent of people who described themselves as very liberal, compared to 48 percent of people who described themselves as very conservative, agreed that one-sixth was a large fraction. The pattern was reversed in the gun store example: 38 percent of people who said they were very liberal, versus 62 percent who said they were very conservative, described one-sixth as a large fraction in that scenario. 

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These results would not be surprising to a linguist. The adjective “large” has no absolute meaning, and becomes meaningful only in relation to a comparison group or baseline set of expectations. The basketball player Manute Bol is a large person, compared to other people, or even other NBA players. But a redwood tree of the same size would be considered small, and a planet the size of Manute Bol would be … not a planet at all.

What does all of this mean for Whole Woman’s Health? The Court has never specified what exactly a “large fraction” is under the Casey test, so the everyday English understanding of the phrase matters. With that in mind, the Fifth Circuit’s claims—that only a “vast majority” can count as a “large fraction” and that one-sixth “nowhere near” qualifies—is clearly at odds with common usage.

As our questions about political orientation indicate, the Supreme Court justices should be particularly careful to not to use superficial arguments to provide intellectual cover for their own moral beliefs or political views about abortion.

In its consideration of the case, the Court must provide a more sophisticated analysis that recognizes not only that one-sixth clearly can be a large fraction in some scenarios, but also that the determination has much to do with assumed expectations and values. In particular, if the justices value a woman’s constitutional right to choose to have an abortion, then one-sixth should be seen as a large fraction—because our baseline expectation should be that few people have their constitutional rights denied.

News Politics

Anti-Choice Democrats: ‘Open The Big Tent’ for Us

Christine Grimaldi & Ally Boguhn

“Make room for pro-life Democrats and invite pro-life, progressive independents back to the party to focus on the right to parent and ways to help women in crisis or unplanned pregnancies have more choices than abortion,” the group said in a report unveiled to allies at the event, including Democratic National Convention (DNC) delegates and the press.

Democrats for Life of America gathered Wednesday in Philadelphia during the party’s convention to honor Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) for his anti-choice viewpoints, and to strategize ways to incorporate their policies into the party.

The group attributed Democratic losses at the state and federal level to the party’s increasing embrace of pro-choice politics. The best way for Democrats to reclaim seats in state houses, governors’ offices, and the U.S. Congress, they charged, is to “open the big tent” to candidates who oppose legal abortion care.

“Make room for pro-life Democrats and invite pro-life, progressive independents back to the party to focus on the right to parent and ways to help women in crisis or unplanned pregnancies have more choices than abortion,” the group said in a report unveiled to allies at the event, including Democratic National Convention (DNC) delegates and the press.

Democrats for Life of America members repeatedly attempted to distance themselves from Republicans, reiterating their support for policies such as Medicaid expansion and paid maternity leave, which they believe could convince people to carry their pregnancies to term.

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Their strategy, however, could have been lifted directly from conservatives’ anti-choice playbook.

The group relies, in part, on data from Marist, a group associated with anti-choice polling, to suggest that many in the party side with them on abortion rights. Executive Director Kristen Day could not explain to Rewire why the group supports a 20-week abortion ban, while Janet Robert, president of the group’s board of directors, trotted out scientifically false claims about fetal pain

Day told Rewire that she is working with pro-choice Democrats, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, both from New York, on paid maternity leave. Day said she met with DeLauro the day before the group’s event.

Day identifies with Democrats despite a platform that for the first time embraces the repeal of restrictions for federal funding of abortion care. 

“Those are my people,” she said.

Day claimed to have been “kicked out of the pro-life movement” for supporting the Affordable Care Act. She said Democrats for Life of America is “not opposed to contraception,” though the group filed an amicus brief in U.S. Supreme Court cases on contraception. 

Democrats for Life of America says it has important allies in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. Sens. Joe Donnelly (IN), Joe Manchin (WV), and Rep. Dan Lipinski (IL), along with former Rep. Bart Stupak (MI), serve on the group’s board of advisors, according to literature distributed at the convention.

Another alleged ally, Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), came up during Edwards’ speech. Edwards said he had discussed the award, named for Casey’s father, former Pennsylvania Gov. Robert P. Casey, the defendant in the landmark Supreme Court decision, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which opened up a flood of state-level abortions restrictions as long as those anti-choice policies did not represent an “undue burden.”

“Last night I happened to have the opportunity to speak to Sen. Bob Casey, and I told him … I was in Philadelphia, receiving this award today named after his father,” Edwards said.

The Louisiana governor added that though it may not seem it, there are many more anti-choice Democrats like the two of them who aren’t comfortable coming forward about their views.

“I’m telling you there are many more people out there like us than you might imagine,” Edwards said. “But sometimes it’s easier for those folks who feel like we do on these issues to remain silent because they’re not going to  be questioned, and they’re not going to be receiving any criticism.”

During his speech, Edwards touted the way he has put his views as an anti-choice Democrat into practice in his home state. “I am a proud Democrat, and I am also very proudly pro-life,” Edwards told the small gathering.

Citing his support for Medicaid expansion in Louisiana—which went into effect July 1—Edwards claimed he had run on an otherwise “progressive” platform except for when it came to abortion rights, adding that his policies demonstrate that “there is a difference between being anti-abortion and being pro-life.”

Edwards later made clear that he was disappointed with news that Emily’s List President Stephanie Schriock, whose organization works to elect pro-choice women to office, was being considered to fill the position of party chair in light of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s resignation.

“It wouldn’t” help elect anti-choice politicians to office, said Edwards when asked about it by a reporter. “I don’t want to be overly critical, I don’t know the person, I just know that the signal that would send to the country—and to Democrats such as myself—would just be another step in the opposite direction of being a big tent party [on abortion].” 

Edwards made no secret of his anti-choice viewpoints during his run for governor in 2015. While on the campaign trail, he released a 30-second ad highlighting his wife’s decision not to terminate her pregnancy after a doctor told the couple their daughter would have spina bifida.

He received a 100 percent rating from anti-choice organization Louisiana Right to Life while running for governor, based off a scorecard asking him questions such as, “Do you support the reversal of Roe v. Wade?”

Though the Democratic Party platform and nominee have voiced the party’s support for abortion rights, Edwards has forged ahead with signing numerous pieces of anti-choice legislation into law, including a ban on the commonly used dilation and evacuation (D and E) procedure, and an extension of the state’s abortion care waiting period from 24 hours to 72 hours.

News Politics

NARAL President Tells Her Abortion Story at the Democratic National Convention

Ally Boguhn

Though reproductive rights and health have been discussed by both Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) while on the campaign trail, Democrats have come under fire for failing to ask about abortion care during the party’s debates.

Read more of our coverage of the Democratic National Convention here.

Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, told the story of her abortion on the stage of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) Wednesday evening in Philadelphia.

“Texas women are tough. We approach challenges with clear eyes and full hearts. To succeed in life, all we need are the tools, the trust, and the chance to chart our own path,” Hogue told the crowd on the third night of the party’s convention. “I was fortunate enough to have these things when I found out I was pregnant years ago. I wanted a family, but it was the wrong time.”

“I made the decision that was best for me — to have an abortion — and to get compassionate care at a clinic in my own community,” she continued. “Now, years later, my husband and I are parents to two incredible children.”

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Hogue noted that her experience is similar to those of women nationwide.

“About one in three American women have abortions by the age of 45, and the majority are mothers just trying to take care of the families they already have,” she said. “You see, it’s not as simple as bad girls get abortions and good girls have families. We are the same women at different times in our lives — each making decisions that are the best for us.”

As reported by Yahoo News, “Asked if she was the first to have spoken at a Democratic National Convention about having had an abortion for reasons other than a medical crisis, Hogue replied, ‘As far as I know.'”

Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Cecile Richards on Tuesday night was the first speaker at the DNC in Philadelphia to say the word “abortion” on stage, according to Vox’s Emily Crockett. 

Richards’ use of the word abortion was deliberate, and saying the word helps address the stigma that surrounds it, Planned Parenthood Action Fund’s Vice President of Communication Mary Alice Carter said in an interview with ThinkProgress. 

“When we talk about reproductive health, we talk about the full range of reproductive health, and that includes access to abortion. So we’re very deliberate in saying we stand up for a woman’s right to access an abortion,” Carter said.

“There is so much stigma around abortion and so many people that sit in shame and don’t talk about their abortion, and so it’s very important to have the head of Planned Parenthood say ‘abortion,’ it’s very important for any woman who’s had an abortion to say ‘abortion,’ and it’s important for us to start sharing those stories and start bringing it out of the shadows and recognizing that it’s a normal experience,” she added.

Though reproductive rights and health have been discussed by both Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) while on the campaign trail, Democrats have come under fire for failing to ask about abortion care during the party’s debates. In April, Clinton called out moderators for failing to ask “about a woman’s right to make her own decisions about reproductive health care” over the course of eight debates—though she did not use the term abortion in her condemnation.