Category Archives: Personal Autonomy

One More Time…

Can you stand one more post about the Supreme Court’s attack on our fundamental freedoms?

To begin with, when he was asked to comment on Alito’s draft decision, “Mayor Pete” knocked it out of the park. You need to watch this.

Then, in a Facebook Post, my lawyer friend David Honig pointed to Alito’s deeply dishonest “history.”

May I take a moment to comment on one aspect of the shocking dishonesty of Alito’s draft abortion opinion? It’s just one, but it highlights the rest.

Alito and his ilk claim to be “originalists,” wise jurists who look to the meaning of words at the time the Constitution was written, in 1789, to glean their meaning.
One fact first. The 9th Amendment says, “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” That means there are rights that aren’t written down, rights that people retain. That would include all the rights, according to an “originalist,” that they held in 1789.

So Alito, in his draft decision, spent paragraphs on the sudden explosion of anti-abortion laws in the mid 19th Century, many decades after the writing of the Constitution, to support his position that abortion wasn’t an existing right to be preserved.

Why would he do that? Why would an “originalist” look, not to the time of the writing of the Constitution, but to a century later, for the very core of the originalist argument?

Because he’s a damned liar.

During Colonial times abortion was quite common. The usual method was actually drinking oil of peppermint, or perhpas black root or cedar root, carefully measured to be enough to cause spontaneous abortion, while not threatening the life of the mother. In English colonies, contrary to Alito’s blatant lie that abortion was illegal from the beginning of Common Law, it was legal until “quickening,” when the fetus could be felt moving.

So my point here isn’t to dive headlong into the abortion debate.

My point is to start the discussion with a fact – the opinion coming down is a lie premised on a lie based on lies.

Whatever you think of abortion, this must color what you think of the Court. The United States Supreme Court has been an actor for good and for ill in our nation over time. The same entity that gave us Plessy vs. Ferguson gave us Brown vs. Board of Education.

But today, that Court is giving us lies in favor of a political, and to some extent religious,* opinion, and doing so boldly and without apology. The end justifies the means, even if it means the United States Supreme Court is a filthy den of liars with as much credibility as the three card monty player on a dingy street corner.

As a man who has spent nearly 40 years working for and believing in the rule of law, while recognizing it is imperfect, the indisputable fact that it is now, from its highest temple, not merely imperfect, but dishonest, is crushing.

Finally, in a footnote, David warns us not to underestimate the degree to which the opinion codifies a conservative version of Christianity as our nation’s one true religion and source of law; as he notes, other religions do not hold the same tenets about abortion that Alito privileges in his dishonest diatribe. Jewish law, for example, considers abortion permissible, as do several Christian  denominations. This Court prides itself on what it calls “religious liberty,” but–as David points out–it is really protecting and elevating one version of Christianity, while ignoring the liberties of those who hold different religious, beliefs.

It’s America’s version of Sharia law.

Putting Us In Our Place…

The day the Alito draft opinion leaked, my youngest son sent me a reaction from The Onion, headlined “Vessel for Male Sexual Gratification Very Sad Today.”

Noting its slumping posture, slack expression, and overall downcast appearance, sources confirmed Wednesday that a vessel for male sexual gratification was very sad today. “It definitely appears to be upset,” said sources, adding that the object that exists solely for men’s physical pleasure was presently sitting unmoving with a distant, empty stare. “It doesn’t look happy. What’s wrong with it? I don’t like the way it’s ignoring me.” At press time, sources had decided to go over to the sexual apparatus and tell it to smile.

Despite the pious, “pro life” pronouncements of those who have worked assiduously to control women’s reproduction, the real issue has little or nothing to do with “saving babies.” (If it did–as innumerable people have pointed out–Americans wouldn’t continue to ignore the care and feeding of those babies once they are born.) It’s the “place”–the defined status– of women. 

We can see the desired end game of the “pro-life” movement in the declarations of the more rabid anti-choice warriors, who have made it quite clear that they oppose birth control as well.

I still remember a conversation with a partner at the law firm I joined after graduating from law school. It was 1977, and the firm had just hired its first two women lawyers (I was one). He mused that women’s ability to plan our childbearing had opened up employment opportunities that hadn’t previously been available. He was right.

Before the wide availability of birth control, the only real “choice” available to women who wanted to pursue professional careers was to abstain–from sex, marriage, and motherhood–or to delay for many years (or more commonly, to entirely forgo) careers.

The birth control pill changed women’s worlds. It also changed virtually all parts of American society. Remember that old cigarette ad, proclaiming “You’ve come a long way, baby?” We have.

Think about the trajectory.

Religion began–and mostly remains– highly patriarchal. Women were seen as either temptresses (Eve!), or nurturers and breeders. Gender norms were “God decreed,”  and religious texts were male-centered.

When the American colonies were first settled, they adopted English laws forbidding women from owning property or from keeping their own earnings. In 1877, all states had laws preventing women from voting. Women have had the vote for just over 100 years.

Most other advances toward civic equality for females came after 1960–the year the FDA approved the birth control pill. In 1963, we got the Equal Pay Act. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed and the EEOC established. In 1965, the  Supreme Court ruled that state legislatures couldn’t forbid married people from using contraceptives–a ruling that Alito’s draft endangers. Other rulings allowed women to serve on juries, and forbid various types of gender discrimination. It was only recently that the Lily Ledbetter Act attacked the practice of paying women less than men doing the same job.

Thanks to those legal changes–and especially the ability to decide whether and when to procreate–women have entered much more fully into the life of this country. We have a woman Speaker of the House, a woman Vice-President. Turn on your TV, and women news anchors and sports reporters inform you. Today, your doctor and your dentist and your CPA are all as likely to be women as men.

The results have been salutary–and not just for women.

A friend whose company offers financial services recently posted an article from The Daily Shot, sharing research that compared companies with greater and lesser numbers of female executives in the ranks. Those with more female executives “have done far better over the last decade in return on equity than the rest of the S&P 500.”

The Christian Nationalist Party–formerly the GOP–finds the current state of affairs terrifying and “unGodly.” The old White guys who believe they should run the world have very accurately identified the foundation on which women’s progress rests: the ability to control our own reproduction. 

And that is what the fight over abortion is really about.

Assuming the extent of the backlash to the Alito leak doesn’t change the result–assuming the Court issues a version of Alito’s dishonest “history” and his astonishing decree that state legislators should have the right to require women to give birth–we will see whether America is willing to roll back the past fifty years of cultural change–whether even Red states are able to erase the civil status, empowerment and participation of half of the population.

Will this last gasp of patriarchy prevail? We’re about to find out.

Sin And Crime

Several years ago, I had a conversation with the Rabbi of the synagogue I had attended growing up. She had asked why I no longer belonged. When I responded that I didn’t believe in God, she retorted “Sheila, no one believes in the God you don’t believe in!”

What she meant, of course, was that I was rejecting a certain image of deity–the guy with a long white beard up in the sky who earns the gratitude of football players who win their games. (I always wonder whether they think their God hates the other team…) I have several friends who are Christian clergy who share the Rabbi’s more sophisticated concept of Godliness, and I have even thought that I could count myself a believer if we defined “God” as, say, the existence of humans’ ethical impulse.

What triggered these recollections and musings was a reminder of a class I taught for a couple of semesters “back in the day,” titled “Sin and Crime.” It was what we called a “Topics” class, a one-credit, two week offering, and it was intended to probe the consequences–and legitimacy–of basing criminal laws on religious conceptions of sin.

Given the renewed efforts of the biblical literalists who control today’s GOP, those consequences–and their illegitimacy–are worth revisiting.

The class began with a consideration of the difference between sin and crime. Sin, the students clearly understood, was violation of a religious precept, a behavior thought to be against the teaching of a particular faith tradition. An action that displeased one’s concept of God.

Crime, on the other hand, was rooted in government’s obligation to maintain order and protect the weak from the strong. Unlike theocracies, America’s particular approach to government is contractual: We the People give government a monopoly on the use of coercive force, and in return, government undertakes to keep some  people from harming others.

That practical, contractual approach was always inconsistent with plenty of laws that characterized an earlier America–blue laws that “kept the (Christian) sabbath holy” and Prohibition are a couple that come to mind. It is also inconsistent with laws against “consensual” behaviors, often called “victimless crimes.”  The Bill of Rights privileges personal autonomy, or self-government. A cherished (if often ignored) American principle is the right of individuals to form and hold their own moral, religious and political beliefs.

That focus on individual liberty and especially liberty of conscience is arguably incompatible with laws regulating prostitution, gambling, drug use, pornography, and  private, consensual sexual relations. (I still remember one of my students, a 40-something Black woman who often referenced her church, indignantly asking why she couldn’t sell her own body if for some reason she decided to do so…)

Obviously, some of these behaviors might lead to harm: the person who becomes dependent upon drugs might commit robberies to support his habit, the person consuming pornography might prey on children. But these consequences are rare and mostly conjectural, and just as we no longer  penalize drinking–we penalize drunk driving–lawmakers can make the necessary distinctions.

Turning what some religions categorize as sin into crimes creates all sorts of problems. Most consensual crimes cannot be fairly enforced (the local constable can’t invade bedrooms to ensure that no one is engaging in sodomy, for example), so these laws are usually justified as “setting a social standard.” In the real world, as many of my gay friends can attest, they are far more likely to end up encouraging selective enforcement. Research confirms that Whites use illicit drugs as much or more than Blacks, but enforcement occurs disproportionately in Black communities.

The  GOP’s single-minded focus on culture war–and especially, it’s persistent effort to deny civil equality to LGBTQ folks–is a result of the party’s takeover by Christian Nationalists. In a theocracy–the form of government they clearly favor–those in power can and do impose their religious beliefs on everyone else.

We’ve always had these Puritans, but they haven’t previously controlled one of the country’s two major parties.

Current estimates place these Evangelical Christians at 14% of the population, a percentage that shouldn’t be as worrisome as it is. But religious zealots are motivated and noisy –and they will vote, because they have remade the GOP into a religion, and by voting, they are venerating the guy with the white beard who lives in the sky, watches everything they do, and wants them to vanquish their enemies. (That would be the rest of us.)

They definitely believe in the God I don’t believe in…

Ve-e-ery Interesting!

Younger readers of this blog–assuming there are some–probably don’t remember Laugh-In, a comedy skit show by Rowan and Martin that was considered edgy for its time. One of the regulars on that show was a comic named Arte Johnson, who would pop up after a segment (often in a pith helmet) and intone (in what I recall as a faux German accent) “Veeery interesting!”

A recent article from Bloomberg elicited a similar reaction from me. It reported on an unanticipated outcome of the dangerous Texas law establishing bounties on people who help women obtain abortions. It was–in Johnson’s memorable phrase–“veeery interesting.”

The article reported on the response of the corporate community to the Texas’s law –an  approach that has triggered passage of similar and increasingly restrictive abortion laws in other states. Named the “heartbeat bill” (a medically-inaccurate characterization), it bans abortions after six-weeks and deputizes private citizens to bring civil lawsuits against anyone they suspect or know helped a woman obtain one. The measure has prompted passage of a similar bill in Idaho, and Florida’s retrograde legislature has approved a ban on abortions after 15 weeks– with no exceptions for rape or incest. Other Red states are following.

 As the Bloomberg article reminded readers, the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to rule on a Mississippi case that its newly conservative majority will likely use to significantly weaken if not overrule Roe v. Wade. When that occurs–and it would be shocking if it didn’t, given the current makeup of the Court–  26 states are certain or likely to largely outlaw abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

In a surprising reaction, corporate America is responding to the threat.

The roar of anti-abortion laws sweeping through U.S. state houses is echoing loudly in human resources offices.

Companies that have offered to help cover travel costs for employees who have to go out of state for abortions are trying to figure out how to go about it. Large corporations like Citigroup Inc., Apple Inc., Bumble Inc., Levi Strauss & Co. and Hewlett Packard Enterprise Co. are now offering such benefits for reproductive-care services not available in an employee’s home state.

The report notes that most health insurance plans cover the costs of abortions, but in the  Red states with abortion bans, companies need to create a mechanism to ensure  that their employees have access to safe and medically appropriate terminations. They are exploring how to protect their workers’ privacy and especially how to fend off legal actions that might be brought by states looking to block such workarounds.

Laura Spiekerman, co-founder of New York-based startup Alloy, told Bloomberg News that reimbursing workers for abortion-related travel is the “low bar” of what companies should do. “I’m surprised and disappointed more companies aren’t doing it,” she said.

The company — which has a handful of employees in states with restrictive abortion laws like Florida, Arizona and Mississippi — in January said that it would pay up to $1,500 toward travel expenses for employees or their partners needing to travel out of state for abortions. Alloy also said it would cover 50% of legal costs up to $5,000 if any employee or their partner had to deal with legal issues due to anti-abortion laws.

The numbers are significant: some 40 million women of reproductive age live in states that are hostile to abortion rights. Those states passed more than 100 anti-abortion laws in 2021, “the highest number in the nearly half a century since Roe v. Wade, according to Guttmacher.”

The article highlights some creative responses.  

Dallas-based Match Group Inc. is partnering with a third party for a similar benefit to Alloy’s. Any Match employee in Texas can call a toll-free number dedicated to the program to reach Planned Parenthood Los Angeles, which will arrange travel and lodging paid for by a fund Match Chief Executive Officer Shar Dubey created last year to cover such costs for staffers and dependents, according to a company spokesperson. Eligibility would be determined through a third-party employment verification vendor.

Meanwhile, the hard-right turn of several states is becoming a negative factor in business location decisions. When Texas  passed its abortion law in September, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff said the company would help staffers relocate from the state. Solugen Inc., a Texas chemicals company, said the state’s social policies were making it difficult to attract talent so it was planning to open another facility elsewhere.

State-level abortion restrictions cost those economies $105 billion annually by cutting labor force participation and earnings, and increasing turnover and time off from work, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. And women who want an abortion but don’t get one are four times more likely to live below the federal poverty level.

I guess when you are a political party dominated by religious crusaders, economic repercussions are irrelevant…

 

 

 

 

 

Who Are We #2

Us versus Them. It’s tribal, a way of approaching life that has–unfortunately– persisted through centuries. For most of those centuries, the major divisions have taken the form of national boundaries, although religion and skin color have been close behind.

In our increasingly globalized world, however, perceptions of who “we” are–and perceptions of the threats posed by “them”– are changing. The identity of the “tribe” to which one belongs is no longer totally dependent upon nationality or even skin color, although religious beliefs remain a potent part of what we might call the New World Disorder.

I was struck by some statistics in a recent New York Times column.The author was considering the genesis and character of pro-Putin/pro-autocrat sentiment on the Right.

It may feel shocking, but it shouldn’t be surprising that many Republican leaders and conservative elites think the American president is a more dangerous enemy than the Russian autocrat. There is an influential tradition on the right of idolizing Putin as a defender of white Christian values against the onslaught of secular, “leftist” liberalism. In 2013, for instance, Pat Buchanan, a leading voice on the “paleoconservative” traditionalist right, described Putin as “one of us,” an ally in what he saw as the defining struggle of our era, “with conservatives and traditionalists in every country arrayed against the militant secularism of a multicultural and transnational elite”. Similarly, in 2014, famous evangelist Franklin Graham lauded Putin for having “taken a stand to protect his nation’s children from the damaging effects of any gay and lesbian agenda” – an agenda Barack Obama was supposedly pursuing in the US.

After the 2016 election, the simmering admiration for Putin morphed into GOP orthodoxy, with Donald Trump himself leading the Republican party’s pro-Russia turn. This rapprochement shaped the right well beyond conservative elites. Among voters in general, support for Donald Trump correlates strongly with a favorable opinion of Putin, and Americans who define the US as a “Christian nation” have a much more favorable view of Putin’s Russia. As recently as January 2022, Putin had a significantly higher approval rating among Republicans than Joe Biden.

The author followed those two paragraphs with a litany of far Right statements confirming that worldview: Steve Bannon declaring his support for Putin because “Putin ain’t woke, he is anti-woke;”  Christian nationalist Republican Lauren Witzke (a Delaware Republican candidate for Senate in 2020)  asserting that she supports Putin because he protects “our Christian values. I identify more with Russian, with Putin’s Christian values than I do with Joe Biden.”  Arizona state senator Wendy Rogers is quoted as saying “I stand with Christians worldwide and not the global bankers who are shoving godlessness and degeneracy in our face”; in case you (inexplicably) missed the anti-Semitic tropes in that statement, she then described Ukrainian president Zelenskiy, who is Jewish, as “a globalist puppet for Soros and the Clintons.”

There were several others–and of course we all know what Tucker Carlson has had to say.

This critique has basically become dogma on the right: a radically “un-American” woke Left is out to destroy the country – and has already succeeded in undermining the nation considerably, especially its “woke, emasculated military,” as Texas senator Ted Cruz put it; a weak west foolishly “focused on expanding its national debt and exploding the gender binary”, according to rightwing activist Ben Shapiro.

For these culture warriors, the message is clear: the democracies of the West had it coming; they’ve been weakened by liberal decadence and “woke culture.”

Those fighting the so-called “woke” culture celebrated Trump’s election as a success in that culture war–as proof that the forces of reaction would ultimately prevail.

Rightwingers everywhere understand the transnational dimension as well as the world-historic significance of the current fight over democracy more clearly than many people on the left: is it possible to establish a stable multiracial, pluralistic democracy? Such a political, social and cultural order has indeed never existed. There have been several stable, fairly liberal democracies – but either they have been culturally and ethnically homogeneous to begin with; or there has always been a pretty clearly defined ruling group: a white man’s democracy, a racial caste democracy, a “herrenvolk” democracy. A truly multiracial, pluralistic democracy in which an individual’s status was not determined to a significant degree by race, gender, or religion? I don’t think that’s ever been achieved anywhere. It’s a vision that reactionaries abhor – to them, it would be the end of “western civilization”. And they are determined to fight back by whatever means necessary.

We are about to see what happens when “we”–the despised, “woke” humans who want to live in that “stable multiracial, pluralistic democracy”–are targeted and opposed by “them,” the neighbors and fellow-citizens) who view that desire with fear and contempt.

I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore….