Let My People Roe

Slate readers poll on discussions of Roe v. Wade.

Several weeks back, in response to Harriet Miers’ claim that “nobody knows my views on Roe v. Wade,” we asked Slate readers—and particularly attorneys—to write in to indicate whether they, too, could claim that nobody knew their views of the landmark abortion case. Hundreds of readers responded (including a rather staggering number of former American Parliamentary Debating Association members). It all seemed to be sort of old news when the Miers nomination was withdrawn. Yet here we have Judge Sam Alito, whose mother, former adviser, and now 20-years-ago-self, all suggest that he has voiced some rather strong objections to Roe. And again, he doubtlessly will tell the Senate that neither his mother, his college professor, nor the Sam Alito who filled in a job application in 1985 ever actually heard his views of the case because he has none. Raising yet again the thorny questions: Why does everyone lie and say they haven’t discussed the case? Or do some people really go through life never discussing it?

Well, here is what you had to say.

I divided respondents into lawyers (including law students) and nonlawyers, simply to test my original hypothesis that nobody who had ever set foot in a law school could avoid debating Roe


Of the 357 lawyers and law students who responded to the poll, 281 (78.7 percent) said that of course they had discussed Roe. Typical of this was a message from lawyer Bill Altreuter: “I would venture to say that everyone I went to law school with could tell you my opinion on Roe. I’m not so sure I could do the same for everyone in my class, but I could probably guess about 75%.” Writes law student John Cannavino: “As a second year law student at the University of San Francisco, I am in a Constitutional Law class of roughly 100 other law students. Out of those 100 other law students, I have heard 100 opinions on Roe. And we haven’t even gotten to the case in the case book yet.”

Same goes for most lawyers. Reader Matt Stubbs explains: “I’m a partner at a midsize, midwest firm that handles very few constitutional issues. Even so, Roe v. Wade, and the right to privacy in general, is to trial lawyers what The Aristocrats is to comedians.  Discussing it is a secret handshake, a sign of respect, and test of wit.” Reader Tracy Hresko went one better and broke it down numerically: “… Thus, I would estimate (conservatively) that approximately 200 people have heard me express my views on Roe v. Wade. Here’s the math: 65 people in my first-year constitutional law class (law school); 50 people in my second-year advanced constitutional law class (law school); 30 people in my Moral and Ethical Issues of Public Policy class (college); 15 people in my constitutional law seminar (college) and 40 friends, classmates and family members that I have discussed the decision with over the past few years.” 

There was a judgment embedded in lots of these replies, insisting that any nominee who hadn’t discussed it wasn’t fit to be considered for the high court. Wrote Robert R. Ambler Jr.: “In my experience as a law student from 1986-1989 and a practicing lawyer since, the vast majority of law students and lawyers have never expressed an opinion on Roe v. Wade. That same vast majority is largely unqualified to sit on the United States Supreme Court.” Asked reader Kevin Carboni, “Would we appoint a Surgeon-General who had claimed not to have an opinion on human cloning (or stem-cell research, or IVF, or medical marijuana use, or end-of-life decisionmaking)? Would we elect a President who professed no opinion on using armed force to subdue terrorists?”

Most readers simply couldn’t believe that anyone who’d attended law school hadn’t discussed the case, including Bradley Parr, who wrote: “It would be one thing to say you’ve never talked about some obscure zoning case from Wyoming. But Roe? Come on.”

Of lawyers and law students, 76 (21.2  percent) said they had flat-out never discussed this case. One longtime attorney married to an attorney writes: “As far as I can remember, I have never discussed the merits of Roe v. Wade with anyone, including my husband.” Adds reader Terrence Kessler, “I don’t recall ever expressing a view, then or since. My confidence in my response stems from my inability to crystalize a ‘view’ even now.”

Many readers contend that most real attorneys are too busy or bogged down in their own areas of law to hazard opinions on Roe. Writes reader Philip Miller: “I have been a practicing lawyer for 11 years and have never discussed Roe v. Wade. The fact is, unless an attorney is a social or political activist there simply is no reason to discuss the case.” Adds another attorney, who asked not to be named: “Most attorneys are more interested in whatever branch of law they choose to pursue. It doesn’t take long as a lawyer to know that other areas of law can be so convoluted that expressing a meaningful opinion on them is impossible without long association in that area. Why not ask what percentage of lawyers have had any specialization in constitutional law since first year law school?  If you do you’ll likely find the percentage is quite small.”

Other readers who voted no argued that anyone who, like Miers, had attended law school before Roe was handed down may have more credibility in asserting they had never discussed the case.

Several readers point out that there is a difference between saying no one knows your views on Roe and no one knows your views on abortion. Notes readerJonathon Groubert: “If you asked ‘Have I ever expressed my opinion on abortion?’ you would get quite a different answer. That’s a question, the answer to which I have discussed with others.” Several suggest that if you are a lawyer and also pro-life you would be mad to discuss Roe. And some question whether an opinion on Roe held in the past is even relevant: Writes second-year law student Joel Flaxman, “Just because I’ve stated an opinion doesn’t mean that my views have not evolved or that the view I stated was not my own, just one that I was trying out.”

Of the lawyers and law students who have never discussed the case, there was a vocal subset who claim that Roe wasn’t even taught at their law schools. Reader Andrew Tenzer wrote: “I think it is fair to assume that most law students, like me, go through law school having never read Roe.” Others suggest that the case is so fraught that it’s taught with no class discussion. Dan [last name withheld] from New York writes: “An interesting side note: that con law professor generally cold called people, but the day before we started on Roe he said that, because of the controversy surrounding the case, he would only ask questions of volunteers, and no one should feel pressured to say anything.” Writes lawyer Robert Spaugh, “Just for the record, Roe was not discussed during my three years of law school. Liberals who run our law schools think the issue has been decided so there is nothing to discuss. Freedom of speech does not extend to conservatives!”

Finally, some readers wrote to suggest that most law students are too lazy/bored/distracted to have opinions on Roe. Says David Noll, a law student: “Law students are more interested in professor’s foibles and their colleagues’ sex lives than Roe.”


Of the 144 nonlawyers who answered, 130 (90.3 percent) said that of course people know their views on Roe. One anonymous respondent writes: “I’m a librarian in a law firm and lawyers are forever in my library tossing opinions back and forth. They wouldn’t be lawyers if they didn’t have an opinion about everything.” Adds Kim Sekel, a teacher, “Now, I am a middle school English teacher, and my 12 and 13 year old students are already interested in discussing abortion. They have written speeches both for and against the procedure, and even understand that Roe is the court ruling that protects abortion rights. If these kids, none of whom study law as yet, are into the discussion, how is it possible that Miers has never considered the question?”

Of the 144 responding nonlawyers, 14 (9.7 percent) said no one on the planet can claim to know their views. My favorite response came from reader Olivier Duchamp, who writes: “I can honestly say that while I’ve discussed it before with friends and teachers alike, I’ve never let anyone know my opinion on Roe v. Wade. Oh well, being a fifteen-year old, my opinions are ignored a lot anyway.”

The most interesting conclusions from this limited, skewed, unscientific, and generally very sarcastic poll: That in general liberals are generally far more comfortable discussing Roe than conservatives; that some lawyers really do keep their private views private; and that the way Roe is taught in law schools deserves an article of its own. Stay tuned …