The Stakes II

A couple of days ago, I considered the stakes of this year’s election choices, and speculated about whether and to what extent the abortion issue will drive both turnout and results. What I failed to explain ( thanks to the word limit I have self-imposed for these daily rants) is why the debate about reproductive choice is in reality about far more than a woman’s right to control her own reproduction, important as that is.

The deeply dishonest Dobbs decision struck at a fundamental premise of America’s Constitution, as we have come to rely upon it– the belief in limited government.

When politicians talk about “limited government,” they generally focus on the size of government, but the U.S. Constitution defines those limits in terms of authority, not size. What is to be limited is the power of government to prescribe certain decisions that should be left to the individual. In the original Bill of Rights, the federal government was forbidden to censor speech, prescribe religious or political beliefs, and take other actions that were invasions of fundamental rights–rights for which early Americans demanded recognition.

Over the years, those limitations on federal government power were imposed on state and local government units, and evolving cultural and social norms prompted a fuller understanding of what sorts of decisions individuals are entitled to make without government interference. I frequently cite what has been called the Libertarian Principle, because that principle undergirds America’s particular approach to government. The principle is simple: Individuals should be free to pursue their own ends–their own life goals–so long as they do not thereby harm the person or property of someone else, and so long as they are willing to accord an equal liberty to their fellow citizens.

The gender of your chosen mate, your adherence to a non-Christian religion (or your utter rejection of the notion of divinity), your choice to reproduce or not, and a number of other life choices are simply none of government’s business. (As Jefferson is often quoted, such decisions “neither break my leg nor pick my pocket.”)

The Libertarian Principle was central to the original Bill of Rights, and its application has  extended as “facts on the ground”–scientific and cultural–have changed. Ever since 1965, when the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Griswold v. Connecticut– informing the Connecticut legislature that a couple’s decision to use contraceptives was none of government’s business–the belief that there are areas of our lives where government simply doesn’t belong has been absolutely central to Americans’ understanding of liberty.

When I was much younger, the importance of limiting government to areas where collective action was appropriate and/or necessary—keeping the state out of the decisions that individuals and families have the right to make for themselves– was a Republican article of faith. It was basic conservative doctrine. Ironically, the MAGA folks who inaccurately call themselves conservative today insist that government has the right—indeed, the duty– to invade that zone of privacy in order to impose rules reflecting their own particular beliefs and prejudices.

It’s critically important to understand that what is really at stake in what we shorthand as the “abortion issue” is that fundamental Constitutional premise. Forcing women to give birth, denying medical care to defenseless trans children or forbidding school children to read certain books are not “stand-alone” positions. They are part and parcel of an entire worldview that is autocratic and profoundly anti-American.

I used to point out that a government with the power to prohibit abortion is a government with the power to require abortion. (As an ACLU friend used to say, poison gas is a great weapon until the wind shifts.)

The issue at the heart of the Bill of Rights–as I interminably repeated to my students–isn’t what decision is made. The issue is who gets to make it. In the government system devised by our Founders, certain decisions are simply off-limits to government. I may disagree with your religious beliefs or political opinions; I may disapprove of your choice of marriage partner or your selection of reading material–but I cannot use the government to countermand your choices and require behaviors more to my liking.

It is that fundamental premise that is at stake in this year’s elections, which will pit the MAGA theocrats and autocrats against those of us who want to preserve America’s hard-won civil liberties and individual rights.

The abortion issue is about so much more than abortion, and I have to believe that, at least at some level, most Americans realize that.


  1. Why is human reproductive rights a preferred diversion from other political debate among our esteemed elected including Senator Braun who was among 19 senators to vote against aide to Ukraine for self defense against Russian aggression, because as he said to the press: “Americans are more concerned about inflation and the price of gas.”

  2. Americans “should be free to pursue their own ends–their own life goals–so long as they do not thereby harm the person or property of someone else…” MAGAs would likely proclaim that a person—a fetus—is being harmed by abortion; some even strive to assign personhood to said fetuses. Of course, once the fetus actually does become a living, breathing person, the MAGAs no longer care about it.
    Republicans realize they’re on a slippery slope regarding the abortion rights issue and are working hard to distract us: the southern border (which Texas claims is its responsibility, not the federal government’s, while complaining about the federal government not doing anything…), Joe Biden’s age and “infirmities”, and on and on. And the slope is indeed slippery; as you pointed out, a government that can deny abortion could also require it. Never in our history, I believe, has an election been so vitally important as the one we’re facing in November.

  3. If I’m not mistaken, I’ve actually commented on this very thing before. There’s been quite a few threads that Sheila has brewed up that are conjunctive to this one.

    Every document that reflects human rights, no matter the country, basically gives everyone the right to make their own decisions. Of course there are countries and forms of government that refused to allow a person to express and live by their human rights, but every person on this planet is entitled to those human rights. One of them, is, everyone is a free moral agent, living by their free moral agency. Now, who’s right should we live by? We have to follow our own conscience, and not force that conscience on anyone else.

    If one is a believer in a heaven for a good folks and a hell for bad folks, then let those possibilities dictate to a person how to follow their conscience. Personally, I don’t believe in a burning hell for the bad, or, All the good folks go to heaven! It’s irrational and NOT scriptural.

    Christ said, give Caesars things to Caesar, and God’s things to God! This premise is also laid out well by the apostle Paul in Romans the 13th chapter. And this was just repeated from Christs sermon at Matthew the 22nd chapter starting in verse 15, Mark The 12th chapter, and Luke the 20th chapter!

    So considering there is no perfection in this world, there are no perfect individuals, the next best thing is to have government take care of the secular issues, where our tax dollars go. And, let everyone’s religious leanings stay personal and not forced upon your fellow man. If that’s not acceptable to many, too bad! That in itself is how the original documentations described the layout of government keeping church and state separate.

    There was wisdom in that original paradigm, not only from politicians but before that, put forth in Romans the 13th chapter, and before that, Leviticus the 19th chapter and Deuteronomy the 6th chapter! As Christ, regularly quoted from the Hebrew scriptures because, there was no Christianity yet.

    Live by your own conscience, let your conscience be your guide! It usually will lead you in a sustainable direction. And definitely, you can see how trying to force your conscience or beliefs on someone else, society becomes exactly like the immense image in Daniel. Feet of clay and iron! In other words, because they cannot mix, it is extremely fragile. And we can absolutely see that today!

  4. Sheila will be talking about this very topic at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Danville (right behind the Mayberrry Cafe) next Sunday the 18th at 10:00 am. Come join us for the service, ask questions in person after Sheila’s talk, and discuss with us afterwards at Coffee Hour! If you’re on the West side of Indy or in Hendricks County, we hope to see you there!

  5. MAGA isn’t about the Constitution or our rights. It’s about CONTROL AND POWER over those rights. MAGA is the tyranny of fascism, plain and simple. The pathetic corruption of Alito and the other “conservative” Justices is nothing more than the grab for power over the people that Republicans have been lusting after for decades, or even after the day Lincoln was shot.

    Today’s Republicans simply have NO moral compass and will do anything to grab power over people and money. It’s that simple. THOSE are the issues that will be voted on in November, and if that power grab isn’t soundly defeated, don’t look for anymore fair elections … if any at all.

  6. The election in November consists of two horrible choices for POTUS. I’ll write “none of the above” or vote for a third-party candidate to clarify my conscience.

    Living in a Red State with gerrymandered districts, I have no doubts that our electoral votes will go to Trump anyway.

    Trump invited Russia to attack our NATO allies during one of his recent campaign speeches, where he rambles nonsensical rants. And then there is Genocide Joe, who has abandoned progressives and is senile.

    Great choices, America!

    Is it too much to ask the oligarchy for better POTUS choices? The two controlled political parties have to do better. Our country is supposed to be a leader, but our choices for POTUS would say otherwise. We are no longer the envy of the free world, except in the eyes of immigrants and political refugees.

    Who would have thought that our country would be supporting and contributing to genocide in 2024?

    Genocide Joe Has Got to Go

  7. Todd, your simple-minded meme “Genocide Joe” is infantile at best and utterly stupid at worst. You’re smart. Stop sounding like Fox News. They are not.

  8. Florida is one state that might have a referendum on abortion in fall. What we might fail to do, in the event the Florida Supreme Court allows the petition to go forward, is to remember that it still matters who controls the legislature.

    In the recent past we have approved a Medical marijuana referendum and a voting rights return for felons who have served their time, only to see the legislature severely limit both. Just because we, the people, obviously want a policy doesn’t mean we will get it from our government (not for the people, nor by the people).8

  9. Peggy, as a fellow Floridian, seeing this garbage happen at “home,” I have to agree with you.
    Too many “conservatives” seem to have taken “small government” to mean, that it should support the business world, and protect private property, nothing else. My, how convenient!

  10. What Vernon said!

    MAGA Repubs don’t care about “representing” voters or “serving” in government — it about $$$ and power — period! That’s why NONE of their actions make any sense. You can’t expect sense from the nonsensical. Or ethics from the unethical (e.g. Alito and Thomas).

  11. In Calder v Bull 3 U.S. 386 (1796), Justice Samuel Chase wrote that there are some things over which no gov’t has authority. (He also was impeached, but not convicted. Vice President Burr, who had warrants out in New Jersey and New York from the duel w/Hamilton, presided over the trial in 1805. Someone in the press wrote that usually it is the murderer who is brought betfore the judge.)

  12. Thank you for explaining the Constitution so that all who read it will, hopefully, understand it.

  13. I think one reason fundamentalist christians want the power to control reproduction, marriage, and who marries whom is fear of Islam’s and original Mormons’ (LDS Church) beliefs in plural marriage. It hasn’t been front-and-center in their arguments, but it is a subtext: “If it’s really not government’s business whom or how many we marry, then before you know it, Muslims and Mormon offshoots will be demanding federal protection for polygamy!” Has any of you seen discussion of this matter in right wing circles?

  14. Keep government out of the boardroom vs. keep government out of the bedroom was a Rep vs Dem mantra from my youth. MAGA didn’t invent the idea of protecting the rich and interfering with the personal decisions of ordinary people. The difference is that McConnell and crew packed the court.

    For that brief “Camelot” moment, with the Warren Court, we had Justices who believed in the Libertarian Principle; the Republicans vowed never to let that happen again. Instead of just appointing good Republicans, who might turn “liberal” once appointed, they vowed to appoint ideologues, and preferably young ones. The Democrats never responded in kind. Then McConnell happened.

  15. Thank you for that lesson in the Libertarian Principle. I didn’t realize it had a name. Great explanation today Professor. Thanks!

  16. Todd,
    You are usually pretty intelligent, but today you are bat * stupid!

    Voting third party is a guarantee the the worst possible candidate will win in the electoral college. (Listen to me because I made my voting decision that way in 2016).

    I didn’t want Biden in 2020 but decided that he was the lesser of two evils. He has turned out to be the best President that we have had in at least 50 years. He has kept, or attempted to keep, the promises that he made while running for office.

    I remind you that Hamas brutally attacked Israel. Biden and the United States had an historic promise to help protect Israel. He kept his, and our promises. The leadership of Israel went off the rails and Biden has been attempting to straighten them out while keeping the U. S. promises ever since.

    Compare his efforts with the stated rantings of the other guy about Putin and Russia over last weekend. Whose finger would you rather have on the “doomsday button?”

    Sheila; I like the new masthead. Very sleek!

  17. And oh yes, what CGH said.
    And why doesn’t anyone criticize Hamas for being the cowards that they are for hiding behind the Palestinians?

Comments are closed.