During a tumultuous few weeks in the summer of 2022, the Supreme Court ignored the scientific evidence underlying safe abortion, the need to slow climate change, and the value of gun safety laws. It is alarming that the justices are now set to consider a voting rights case in the current term, given Chief Justice John Roberts’s feelings on what he calls the “sociological gobbledygook” of research into the effects of gerrymandering.
The promise of democracy is being sorely tested by judgments from the Supreme Court’s conservative justices in cases involving health, welfare and the future of the planet. Over and over in the 2021–2022 term, their decisions put industry, religion (specifically, a conservative strain of Christianity) and special interests above facts. They have devalued the role of expertise.
Disregarding science and evidence is a terrible shift for the highest court in the land, which once safeguarded the health of the public in rulings that upheld state vaccine mandates and safe food production. This is in contrast to the way our current conservative justices have viewed COVID restrictions, whether exempting religious groups from bans on group gatherings or barring vaccine mandates for large businesses. Even in decisions that uphold basic public health tenets, conservative justices have spouted misleading scientific claims. In his dissent on the court’s decision to not take on New York’s vaccine mandate law for health-care workers, Justice Clarence Thomas laments that the workers demanding a religious exemption objected to available COVID vaccines “because they were developed using cell lines derived from aborted children,” wording that obscures that the cells were grown in a lab based on elective abortions decades ago and also are used in the development of routine drugs.
This shift away from our social responsibilities for health and welfare is one that we fear will lead to needless suffering and death. We urge the court to change its reasoning—to value statistics, to value research and to understand how ignoring it in making decisions is contrary to common decency and their responsibility as jurists to the American people.
In their decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the majority justices ignored what we and others have repeatedly reported: abortion is safe—much safer than pregnancy itself—and denying people access to legal abortions leads to poorer physical and mental health outcomes, not to mention economic outcomes. In overturning Roe v. Wade and shunting abortion rights to states, the justices who voted in favor of Dobbs put religion and the status of a mass of cells over the health and welfare of actual people who make up approximately 50 percent of the U.S. population. They also indicated their disregard for the medical profession and the privacy of the doctor-patient relationship that the justices in the majority have no doubt continued to enjoy since their ruling became practice.
In striking down New York’s gun safety law, the majority justices ignored data that show that unfettered access to guns leads to more murders and suicides and not fewer crimes. They ignored data showing that guns are now responsible for more child deaths than automobiles. They even ignored data that showed that once you repeal a gun law, gun-related killings go up. It was a coldhearted decision, against the backdrop of Uvalde, Buffalo and every mass shooting our nation has suffered in the past decades. It was another slap in the face of our health-care system and the emergency clinicians who must try to save people shredded apart by high-powered weapons that are incredibly easy to get. As we have said before, gun safety laws are part of what makes a compassionate nation, and in this, the majority justices showed their callousness.
And then there is climate change. In stripping power from the epa to help power plants mitigate their carbon output, the majority justices again said evidence doesn’t matter, science doesn’t matter. Our planet is warming. Coal is one of the largest contributors of greenhouse gases in the world. Taking regulatory power away from the epa now puts states in charge of slowing climate change. Piecemeal efforts will not yield the reductions we need to slow warming. Federal action, as part of global efforts, is the necessary solution to this problem. And climate change is a public health issue. An increase in ferocious winter storms, unbearable heat, damaging rain and wildfires—these all affect the health and welfare of people in the U.S. The science is clear on this: we have to act now, and the Supreme Court has made those actions harder.
As with every level of government, there is no requirement that the Supreme Court factor science into its decision-making. And as Justice Amy Coney Barrett has said, “I’m certainly not a scientist.” But expertise matters, and knowing when you don’t know something and seeking that information makes for better justice. Yet in their efforts to be constitutional purists, at least when it suits their ideology, the justices in the majority show that ignoring science and evidence is their modus operandi. Instead they are using their power to uphold a certain vein of religion: last term the majority ruled against separation of church and state in two education cases, one of which forced Maine to fund schools that teach children misinformation about evolution and climate science.
The U.S. once inspired other countries to protect people’s liberties. Now the rest of the world is watching and reacting to the decisions that our Supreme Court is making. And it’s not good.
You don’t need to be a scientist or mathematician to make good decisions and judgments. But if you are a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, with the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people hanging on your every opinion, you owe it to us to use the data that science painstakingly compiles when handing down your decisions. We cannot go back to a world of religious and racial supremacy, where the bodies of women and people of color are objects without self-determination. We must not become the dystopian future so much science fiction has warned us about. Let evidence rule judgment.