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.