Have presidents’ parenting experiences shaped Supreme Court decisions?

Presidents and first ladies aren’t immune from the joys, sorrows and unexpected events surrounding parenthood. What about the parenting experiences of presidents who appointed Supreme Court justices whose votes decided cases related to childbearing? 

John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic president, nominated Justices Byron White and Arthur Goldberg to the high tribunal. Contraception and abortion weren’t on the political agenda when JFK ran for office in 1960 or during his truncated presidency. JFK and his wife Jacqueline, at ages 43 and 31, respectively, when they entered the White House, were in their prime family-raising years. They remain the only first couple to have a child between the election and inauguration, John Jr., born in late November 1960. They wanted a large brood, but Mrs. Kennedy suffered a miscarriage and a stillbirth prior to their daughter Caroline’s 1957 arrival. The president and first lady rejoiced when Jackie became pregnant in 1963 but were devastated when their premature son, Patrick, died barely two days after his birth.

Whether the Kennedys agreed with their religion’s prohibition against artificial birth control and abortion is unknown, but JFK’s two nominees to the Supreme Court, neither of whom was Catholic, both voted in 1965 to strike down Connecticut’s ban on contraception even for married couples. White, however, was one of only two justices who dissented from 1973’s Roe v. Wade decision establishing a right to abortion.

Infamously, JFK had a relationship with White House intern, Mimi Beardsley, who reports that they had “unprotected” sexual encounters. When she thought she might be pregnant, a presidential enabler reportedly began abortion arrangements, despite its illegality. The false pregnancy alarm spared the college student from having to proceed with the plan.

Ronald Reagan and his first wife, Jane Wyman, had a biological daughter and an adopted son, but lost a premature baby, which reportedly strained their union. They divorced in 1949. The premarital pregnancy of Nancy Davis prompted Reagan’s second marriage three years later. As California governor, he signed a 1967 bill liberalizing access to abortion. But, by his 1980 election to the presidency, Reagan was a staunch “pro-lifer” and appointed what he thought were four fellow conservatives to the nation’s highest court. 

Reagan was right about Justice Antonin Scalia, a devout Catholic and father of nine, and Justice William Rehnquist, whom he promoted to chief justice. Both went to their graves as determined anti-abortion advocates. (Rehnquist, a Richard Nixon appointee to associate justice, had dissented with White in Roe.) But Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman on the court and thus its only member to have experienced pregnancy, when the tribunal decided Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992, joined with the fourth Reagan appointee, Justice Anthony Kennedy, a Catholic, to uphold some Pennsylvania restrictions on abortion but affirm the core of Roe.  

Both President Bushes had complex histories involving offspring. George H.W. Bush and his wife Barbara experienced the tragic loss of their 3-year-old daughter Robin to leukemia in 1953. Her death was one of the first childhood memories of her older brother, George W. Bush. Barbara eventually gave birth to three more sons and a daughter. When young George was a high-schooler, his mother suffered a miscarriage. With the elder Bush on the road, it fell to “W.” to accompany Barbara Bush to the hospital and carry the deceased fetus (contained in a jar) to nurses. He later reported thinking, “There was a human life, a little brother or sister.” The trauma caused him to discuss with his mother whether she should attempt future pregnancies.

When George W. married Laura Welch, an only child, she hoped to have a passel of children, like the large family her husband hailed from, but the young couple experienced fertility issues that ran in Laura’s family and decided to adopt. As they began working with an adoption agency, the Bushes discovered they were expecting twins. While president, George W. Bush, a staunch “pro-lifer,” signed an executive order limiting stem-cell research to fetal lines that already existed. He also welcomed to the White House “snowflake babies” produced from frozen embryos donated by parents who have completed their families through in vitro fertilization (IVF).

Ironically for their two appointing presidents, two current justices — Clarence Thomas (appointed by Bush 41) and Samuel Alito (named by Bush 43) — have created uncertainty about pregnancy issues with their leadership of the majority that struck down Roe in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Will women who have miscarriages need to prove that they didn’t abort their fetuses? Will in vitro fertilization be allowed and, if so, will couples have the option of destroying their fertilized eggs? 

George H.W. Bush, whose father, Connecticut Sen. Prescott Bush, supported birth control, might have been more comfortable with the moderate approach to abortion that his appointee, Justice David Souter, took in the Casey case, when he joined O’Connor and Kennedy to uphold Roe but allow some state limitations. Conversely, George W. Bush’s firsthand experiences may have prepared him to accept Alito’s more extreme majority opinion in Dobbs.

The Clintons and Obamas also had trouble conceiving. Bill and Hillary had made an appointment with a fertility expert when they discovered their pregnancy with daughter Chelsea. After a miscarriage, Barack and Michelle underwent fertility treatments that led to the birth of their first daughter, Malia. Another round of IVF produced their second baby girl, Sasha. As staunch liberals who believe in a woman’s right to control her reproductive health care, the 42nd and 44th presidents nominated four “pro-choice” members of the Supreme Court — Justices Ruth Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. The latter three will go down in constitutional history for their fiery dissent from overturning the right to abortion.

Donald Trump, the father of five children by three wives, was for abortion before he was against it. By his 2016 run for the GOP presidential nomination, he proclaimed that women who have abortions should be “punished.” But he quickly retracted the statement and declined to answer whether he had faced abortion personally during his days as a Manhattan libertine. His trio of “pro-life” Supreme Court choices — Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett — sealed the majority vote needed to abolish the national right to abortion.

Supreme Court nominees since the Roe decision have been chosen, in part, based on their perceived positions on abortion. In this new Dobbs era, it might be time to ask all presidential aspirants how personal experiences may have shaped their political views of reproductive rights.

Barbara A. Perry is Presidential Studies director and Gerald L. Baliles Professor at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. She was the 1994-95 Supreme Court Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @BarbaraPerryUVA.

Tags Abortion Anthony Kennedy Barbara Bush Dobbs v. Jackson George W. Bush in vitro fertilization John F. Kennedy Ronald Reagan Sandra Day O'Connor Stem cell research Supreme Court

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