Grappling with public health impacts of Supreme Court decisions

Supreme Court forum
From top left, clockwise: Dana Milbank, Marc Morial, Cecile Richards, Leah Stokes, Esther Sanchez-Gomez

Panelists at a Harvard Chan School forum examined how a slew of recent decisions by the Supreme Court negatively affect public health—and how advocates can push back

September 21, 2022 – “In just seven days last June,” said Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health Dean Michelle Williams, “the U.S. Supreme Court set back public health by 50 years.” That sobering assessment kicked off a September 16 panel discussion at the School focused on recent Court decisions that, as Williams put it, “drove back efforts to address the pressing threat of climate change, expanded access to deadly firearms, and of course eliminated the right to abortion by overturning Roe vs. Wade.”

Moderated by Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, a panel of experts grappled with the impact of the Court’s decisions—as well as further threats from upcoming votes on affirmative action and voting rights—on public health. The event wasn’t all gloom and doom, however. Throughout the discussion, participants offered practical and inspiring words on how public health advocates and ordinary citizens could work to mitigate the effects of the most alarming changes set in motion by the Court.

Participants didn’t hold back when Milbank asked them each for a word to describe the current Supreme Court. “Politicized,” “illegitimate,” and “radical” were some of the words chosen by speakers, who included Marc Morial, president and CEO, National Urban League; Cecile Richards, former president of Planned Parenthood and co-founder of Supermajority; Esther Sanchez-Gomez, attorney, Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence; and Leah Stokes, Anton Vonk Associate Professor of Environmental Politics, University of California, Santa Barbara.

“This is a court that is so highly partisan and dismissive of not only judicial precedent—but [also of] fundamental human rights and accepted standards in this country—that it is no longer protecting the people,” Richards said. While impacts from the Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade continue to reverberate in state laws banning abortion, she said, the decision has also resulted in huge shifts in public opinion that could help mitigate the impact. She cited the rejection of a ballot measure stripping abortion protections from the constitution in conservative Kansas, and polls showing that abortion rights are a major concern for many voters. “This is a long-term re-shifting of voter intensity,” Richards said, “a belief in people that this is not a Texas or Mississippi problem, but a problem that affects every family in the United States.”

Public opinion on climate change also suggests a disconnect with the Court, according to Stokes. She noted that polls show that 70 percent of Americans want action to curb climate emissions, despite the recent ruling in West Virginia v. EPA limiting the government’s ability to do so. “What we’re seeing is really minority rule,” she said. “We have such an extreme Court out of step with the American people and public opinion on so many issues.” She raised an alarm around the Court’s application of the “major questions” doctrine, which prohibits the executive branch from setting regulations without explicit Congressional approval on major issues, even as the Court failed to define what those issues were. “They could say anything is a major question,” she said. On the other hand, she added, the ruling wasn’t as bad as it could have been, since it acknowledged that the EPA can regulate carbon pollution, which new provisions in the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act allow it to do.

On issues of gun rights, Sanchez-Gomez noted that “there’s a lot of political will for conversations about modest, common-sense lifesaving measures” to curb gun violence. On the other hand, she lambasted the recent Supreme Court decision striking down New York State’s concealed-carry law and recognizing a broad right for citizens to carry a gun in public. Justice Samuel Alito, she said, “went so far as to mock the social science research about gun regulations and the way they are proven to reduce gun violence, and decided to elevate his own ideologically biased anecdotes above that public health research.” Sanchez-Gomez says the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms still has broad regulatory authority on a federal level to set rules on gun ownership, however, and advocates are taking the fight directly to gun manufacturers through lawsuits.

In its next session, the Court will consider two cases in the area of racial justice—affirmative action in schools and racially based gerrymandering—that could have a direct impact on the health of vulnerable populations. Discussing the latter case, which involves redistricting in North Carolina that the state’s own supreme court ruled unconstitutional, Morial said he worried about the Court’s possible acceptance of the plaintiff’s argument that legislative redistricting was somehow immune to judicial review. “I call it ‘hocus pocus logic,’” he said, “the invention of novel theories and the hijacking of time-honored methods of interpreting the Constitution.” He warned that by employing such leaps of logic, the Court is imperiling its own legitimacy, as well as its 50-year role helping expand civil rights in American society.

Morial and the other panelists urged citizens to vote to both demonstrate public opinion against the Supreme Court’s recent decisions and to empower Congress to pass laws on abortion rights, gun control, climate regulation, and other issues that could alleviate the effects those decisions. “Frankly, until the Republican party begins to lose elections because of the very issues we are talking about, we are not going to have the kind of political change we need,” Richards said. She also stressed the importance of public health research to show the effects of abortion bans and other policies on public health. “It is really important to have the medical voice in this conversation about why access to reproductive health care is not a political issue, it’s a medical health care issue,” she said.

“We have to connect the dots to the fact that this erosion of our rights and our public health is hurting us, and use that to really fuel our activism,” agreed Stokes. Several participants also stressed the importance of collective action to raise awareness of public opinion and to put pressure on officials to act. “The number one thing we say is join a group,” said Stokes. “Groups can help you plug in, they can help you go to a protest, they can help you work on a bill. Don’t think you have to do it on your own.”

Michael Blanding