Category Archives: Personal Autonomy

Taking Us Back…

I’ve been working with a friend –a former academic colleague–on a book about the causes and consequences of what Americans call the women’s movement. He’s a quantitative guy (I think he sleeps in a bed of data…) while I am rather clearly not, but we are both interested in the history of women’s emancipation–not just questions like “To what extent did the invention and widespread use of the birth control pill allow women to enter the workforce?” or “How did the change from jobs requiring brute strength to those requiring skill benefit women?” but also things like “what changes in social and cultural attitudes were triggered by women’s suffrage, political activity and workforce participation?”

We most definitely aren’t planning an academic/scholarly book. Instead, we hope to provide a journey of sorts, an accessible trip through the last hundred years or so, focusing on the causes and consequences of American women’s change of legal and social status.

The incredibly important question we will not be able to answer is “Is that progress–and we do see it as progress–reversible?”

There are movements in today’s America absolutely committed to that reversal, and the current “abortion wars” are only one aspect of their agenda, which involves a wholesale retreat from numerous aspects of contemporary American life, not just the emergence of us “uppity” women.

Common Dreams recently had an essay by Mike Lofgren, describing the merger of some of the most retrograde of those movements and reporting on the danger posed by the recent “teaming up” of religious extremists with far-right fascist groups.

Here’s his lede:

The Supreme Court’s disastrous rulings on prayer on public school property and abortion rights have finally focused proper attention on the role of religious extremism in undermining democratic self-rule. For decades, not only has it been underestimated, most of the media has misunderstood Christian fundamentalism’s goals.

Make no mistake: the well-funded, well-armed alliance of motivated extremists that I have described constitutes the greatest domestic danger this nation has faced since the Civil War.

Katherine Stewart, who has written on the religious right for many years, has redressed this misunderstanding in a New York Times piece. She straightforwardly says that Christian fundamentalism’s goal is “breaking American democracy,” and that this is not an unintended byproduct of fundamentalism’s political activity. No, it “is the point of the project.”

You might think that church-going Christians, no matter how fundamentalist, have little in common with organizations like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, or with neo-Nazi groups like Richard Spencer’s National Policy Institute, or the Aryan Nation. Yet Lofgren points out that there is substantial overlap in the membership of those groups. He says they “bury their extreme theological differences to ally against their common enemy: the Enlightenment, a tolerant society, and equal justice under law.”

Among their other motivating issues, these movements share a commitment to misogyny and to a cult of masculine toughness. (Paging Josh Hawley ...)

This is obvious among fundamentalists and white nationalists alike: Southern Baptists and other evangelical sects preach “submission” of women, and every nationalist movement of the past century has diminished women’s rights.

Lofgren notes that Peter Thiel, a billionaire funder of the movement, has expressed his belief that it is was a mistake to “give” women the vote…

Fundamentalists want a universally Christian America that

they insist existed at the time of the nation’s founding, objections from Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Mark Twain, or Ambrose Bierce notwithstanding. White nationalists pine for a traditional white America, regardless of the presence from the beginning of racial differences and tensions.

Lofgren quotes Umberto Eco, who described what he termed “ur-fascist” tendencies: a faux-populism coupled with a railing against “elite” straw men; the habit of using a vocabulary similar to Newspeak in that it obscures rather than reveals meaning; contempt for the weak; and more. And he focuses upon the recent Supreme Court decisions undermining the right to personal autonomy and the separation of church and state.

Now that the Supreme Court has seen fit to read theocracy into the Constitution, Americans have begun to wake up to the political threat to their liberties and their way of life. But few have noticed how synergistic the rest of its rulings are with a religious-right campaign to wreck the constitutional order. Past campaign finance and congressional redistricting decisions have been a gift to a party that has given up on competitive electoral democracy in favor of Russian-style elections and public religion enforced by state diktat.

Obviously, women aren’t the only people threatened by this movement. Everyone whose fundamental right to self-determination has led them to live a life disapproved of by White Christian Nationalists is at risk.

Just think of us women as the canaries in the coal mine….

 

Let’s Try This One More Time…

What’s wrong with the argument–made on this site most recently by Paul Ogden–that our differences about abortion should be resolved by democratic debate, and not by Judges issuing edicts?

Certainly, we Americans decide lots of things democratically–legislatures in the various states make policies about taxation, about criminal law, property rights, public transportation and innumerable other issues, and those decisions presumably reflect the majority sentiment in those states. (Okay, maybe not, given the extent of gerrymandering…but theoretically.)

Why do you suppose that those legislators and their constituents don’t get to vote on other matters: the right to free speech, the right to pray to the God of your choice (or not), the right to read books of one’s own choosing, the right to be free of arbitrary searches and seizures, the right of citizens to cast votes in elections…

The reason we don’t subject those and similar rights to majority preferences is because the courts have determined–properly–that under our constitution, they are fundamental rights. And the majority doesn’t get to decide whether person X or person Y is entitled to fundamental rights.

Ever since Griswold v. Connecticut, in 1965, the United States Supreme Court has acknowledged that personal autonomy–the  individual’s right to make “intimate” personal decisions–is one of those fundamental rights. The doctrine of substantive due process, often called the right to privacy, is shorthand for the recognition that certain decisions should not be made by government. The doctrine answers the question “Who decides?” by drawing a line between the myriad issues appropriate for resolution by majorities acting through government, and decisions  that government in a free society has no business making.

The question, by the way, is who decides–who gets to make a particular decision, not what the decision should be.

The deeply dishonest ruling in Dobbs didn’t simply mischaracterize history in order to impose a minority religious belief on all Americans. It attacked the rule that restrains government’s intrusion into the private lives of its citizens. Its “reasoning” would allow fundamental rights–to bodily autonomy, to the choice of a marriage partner, to decisions about procreation– to be decided by legislatures chosen by “democratic” majorities.

Unless you are prepared to argue that the right to make those very personal decisions is not a fundamental constitutional right, allowing abortion and contraception and same-sex marriage to be decided by majority rule is no different from putting my choice of reading material, or your choice of religion, up to a vote of your neighbors.

The reason so many people are outraged over Dobbs and disgusted by the misogynistic culture warriors in the Indiana legislature is because they recognize that we are arguing about a very basic American principle: the right of each individual to live in accordance with his or her own deeply-held beliefs rather than in servitude to the beliefs of others–even if those others constitute a majority (which in this case, they pretty clearly do not.)

The reason so many women understand  Dobbs to be an assault on women is that its result requires believing that a right to self-determination claimed only by women is not a fundamental right, but a privilege that can be withdrawn by legislative bodies.

By definition, rights don’t depend upon your ability to obtain a favorable decision by a majority of your neighbors. 

Think of it this way: I may strongly disagree with the way in which you are using your freedom of speech. I may think your religion is ridiculous, and your choice of reading material stupid–but I don’t get to vote to shut you up, close your church or censor your books–and you don’t get to vote on my reproductive decisions. 

That’s because fundamental rights are not subject to majority vote.

I’ll end this diatribe with one more repetition of the libertarian principle that undergirds the real “original intent” of America’s particular approach to government–and especially animates the Bill of Rights: Individuals are entitled to live their lives as they see fit, until and unless they are thereby harming the person or property of another, and so long as they are willing to extend an equal liberty to others.

Autocrats and theocrats have a whole lot of trouble with “live and let live…”

 

Putting Their Money Where Their Mouths Are–NOT

Even in Kansas–a deep-red state--voters have seen through the pious lies of the forced birth movement.

Rabid anti-abortion activists insist that they care about “both”–the woman and the fetus that they insist upon calling a baby. The New York Times recently published some data that shows just how hollow that declaration really is.

Pro-choice advocates have long emphasized that hollowness: the fact that the forced-birth movement conveniently ignores the complexities of pregnancy and its impact on women’s health, and the fact that once those little fetuses become actual babies, interest in their welfare magically evaporates. As the saying goes, the Times article brings the receipts.

The headline and sub-head really tell the story: “States With Abortion Bans Are Among Least Supportive for Mothers and Children.” “They tend to have the weakest social services and the worst results in several categories of health and well-being.” Extensive charts confirm the message that the states that are most hostile to abortion score poorly on a wide variety of health and well-being outcomes, while states supportive of abortion rights  have more generous social safety nets.

You might conclude that–in states where legislators actually give a rat’s patootie about women and babies–they pass laws that both respect female autonomy and provide support for the children of women who choose to give birth. They put their money where their mouths are.

Let’s look at Mississippi–a state Indiana seems to be trying to emulate:

In Mississippi, which brought the abortion case that ended Roe v. Wade before the Supreme Court, Gov. Tate Reeves vowed that the state would now “take every step necessary to support mothers and children.”

Today, however, Mississippi fares poorly on just about any measure of that goal. Its infant and maternal mortality rates are among the worst in the nation.

State leaders have rejected the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, leaving an estimated 43,000 women of reproductive age without health insurance. They have chosen not to extend Medicaid to women for a full year after giving birth. And they have a welfare program that gives some of the country’s least generous cash assistance — a maximum of $260 a month for a poor mother raising two children.

If it was only Mississippi, that would be bad enough, but the Times investigation found that in the 24 states that have banned abortion (or probably will) policies on a broad range of outcomes are substantially worse than in states where abortion will probably remain legal. The article cited policies on child and maternal mortality, teenage birthrates and the share of women and children who have no health insurance.

The majority of these states have turned down the yearlong Medicaid postpartum extension. Nine have declined the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, which provides health care to the poor. None offer new parents paid leave from work to care for their newborns.

One of the charts accompanying the text lists the states that have banned or dramatically restricted abortion or are likely to, along with their ranks on lack of insurance, maternal and infant mortality, and child poverty. (They all appear to be Red states. Indiana, unsurprisingly, is toward the bottom of those categories, just as we are at the bottom of states in voter turnout–which may not be a data point as unconnected as it first appears…among other issues, gerrymandering is bad for women.)

Indiana ranks 30th in its percentage of insured women; 41st in maternal mortality; 39th in infant mortality, and 28th in child poverty.  Those rankings are likely to sink even further after our retrograde legislature’s attack on women’s autonomy.

The article also acknowledges the role of racism.

Studies have repeatedly found that states where the safety net is less generous and harder to access tend to be those with relatively more Black residents. That has further implications for Black women, who have a maternal mortality rate nationally that is nearly three times that of white women.

The article has other examples of “pro life” states’ lack of concern for those “precious babies” once they are actually born.

None of the states that have banned abortion (or are likely to) guarantee parents paid leave from work to care for and bond with their newborns. Just 11 states and the District of Columbia do. Paid leave has been shown to benefit infants’ health and mothers’ physical and mental health as well as their economic prospects.

In most states, there is no guaranteed child care for children until they enter kindergarten at age 5. Subsidies available to low-income families cover a small segment of eligible children, ranging from less than 4 percent in Arkansas (which now bans abortion) to more than 17 percent in Vermont (which passed abortion rights legislation).

I encourage you to click through. Read the statistics and peruse the charts. And the next time someone piously proclaims that they “love them both,” hand them a copy.

 

“Don’t Know Much About History”

That old Sam Cooke tune should be Justice Alito’s theme song.

Distortion–or flat-out lying–about history hasn’t previously been a feature of Supreme Court decisions, although it’s nothing new in political discourse. (Remember the people who argued against same-sex marriage by insisting that marriage “has always been between one man and one woman,” despite the fact that the statement was demonstrably false? Even if you ignore biblical history, more than half of the world still recognizes plural marriage.)

Alito’s recitation of history in Dobbs has been rebutted by historians, and its falsity was recently the subject of a lengthy essay in the Guardian. 

As the essay notes, Alito claims that a reversal of Roe v Wade “restores the US to an unbroken tradition of prohibiting abortion on pain of criminal punishment [that] persisted from the earliest days of the common law until 1973.”

This assertion, however, is easily disproven.As historians have exhaustively explained, early American common law (as in Britain) generally permitted abortions until “quickening”, or perceptible foetal movement, usually between 16 to 20 weeks into a pregnancy. Connecticut was the first state to ban abortion after quickening, in 1821, which is roughly two centuries after the earliest days of American common law. It was not until the 1880s that every US state had some laws restricting abortion, and not until the 1910s that it was criminalised in every state. In the wake of Dobbs, social media was awash with examples from 18th- and 19th-century newspapers that clearly refuted Alito’s false assertion, sharing examples of midwives and doctors legally advertising abortifacients, Benjamin Franklin’s at-home abortion remedies, and accounts of 19th-century doctors performing “therapeutic” (medically necessary) abortions.

The essay also emphasized that anti-abortion fervor was not motivated by the moral or religious beliefs generally cited by anti-choice activists.

In fact, the first wave of anti-abortion laws were entangled in arguments about nativism, eugenics and white supremacism, as they dovetailed with a cultural panic that swept the US in the late 19th and early 20th century as a result of the vast changes in American society wrought by the conflict. This panic was referred to at the time in shorthand as “race suicide”

The increasing traction today of the far-right “great replacement theory”, which contends that there is a global conspiracy to replace white people with people of colour, and has explicitly motivated white supremacist massacres in the US, is often said to have originated with a French novel called The Camp of the Saints by Jean Raspail. Published in 1973, the same year that Roe v Wade enshrined American women’s rights to reproductive autonomy, it is a dystopian account of “swarthy hordes” of immigrants sweeping in and destroying western civilisation. But there were many earlier panics over “white extinction”, and in the US, debates around abortion have been entangled with race panic from the start. 

As a similar post at FiveThirtyEight.com put it,” the anti-abortion movement, at its core, has always been about upholding white supremacy.”

Historians point to the numerous newspapers, lectures and sermons that led to the original criminalization of abortion by warning that Catholics and other foreign-born immigrants were likely to outnumber Protestant, native-born Americans. The essay cited one representative example– a 1903 editorial pointing out that the Protestant population of the US was increasing by 8.1% while the Catholic population was increasing by 21.8%, and characterizing those statistics as an “alarming condition of things.” The article noted that there were “on the average more than five abortions a month, none of them in Catholic families”. In case the message wasn’t sufficiently clear, the piece was headlined “Religion and Race Suicide”.

When the resurgent Ku Klux Klan paraded in Louisiana in 1922, they bore banners that read “White Supremacy”, “America First”, “One Hundred Per Cent American”, “Race Purity” and “Abortionists, Beware!” People are sometimes confused by the Klan’s animus against abortionists, or impute it to generalised patriarchal authoritarianism, but it was much more specifically about “race purity”: white domination can only be maintained by white reproduction.

The article is lengthy, but well worth your time to read; it contains a meticulous recitation of the thoroughly racist roots of opposition to abortion. My only quibble is that It gives only a nod to the White male patriarchy embedded in the numerous religious dogmas that require the subordination and submission of women. Without the benefit of that moral “fig leaf,” I doubt whether its clearly racist roots would have carried the movement so far.

I do absolutely agree with the essay’s conclusion:

The assault on women’s rights is part of the wider move to reclaim the “commanding place” in society for a small minority of patriarchal white men. And, as Alito’s decision shows, where legal precedent and other justifications cannot be found, myth will fill the vacuum.

No matter how ahistorical that myth…

 

Republicans Are Coming For Your Birth Control

In the wake of Dobbs, spurred by a clear threat best articulated in Clarence Thomas’ concurring opinion, the U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill that would guarantee continued access to contraception.

Actually, that sentence is somewhat inaccurate: the Democrats in the House passed the measure; they were able to garner exactly eight Republican votes.

Think about that.

The measure passed 228 to 195, meaning that almost all Republicans refused to protect an unrestricted right to the purchase and use of contraception. Those eight votes represented only slightly more Republican support than two bills that the House passed the prior week, which would have guaranteed access to abortion. Almost all Republicans united in opposition to that measure.

Worse still, the linked article from the Times reports that the contraceptive bill is “almost certain to fail in the evenly divided Senate, where most Republicans are also likely to be opposed.”

Again–think about that. Today’s GOP wants government to be able to control one of the most intimate decisions citizens can make–a decision that is fundamentally private, a decision that is absolutely none of government’s business

“An extreme G.O.P., an extreme Supreme Court, they want to take away your freedom and your control over your own lives,” said Representative Angie Craig, Democrat of Minnesota. “We are in an absurd time.”

She said before the vote that “quite frankly, I’m appalled that we have to vote on this damn bill at all. This is not an extremist issue. This is an extremist G.O.P.”..

Half of the eight Republicans who broke with their party to support the measure are retiring from Congress, including Representatives Anthony Gonzalez of Ohio, John Katko of New York, Adam Kinzinger of Illinois and Fred Upton of Michigan. The remainder — Representatives Liz Cheney of Wyoming, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Nancy Mace of South Carolina and María Elvira Salazar of Florida — have sought to appeal to moderates and independent voters to bolster their re-election bids.

In Griswold v. Connecticut–a 1965 case–William O. Douglas’s majority opinion reflected the logic of its conclusion. He wrote “Would we allow the police to search the sacred precincts of marital bedrooms for telltale signs of the use of contraceptives? The very idea is repulsive to the notions of privacy surrounding the marriage relationship.” The majority found a right to privacy–the doctrine of substantive due process that was explicitly undermined in Dobbs–in the language of several of the amendments, which Douglas noted would be difficult or impossible to respect without  the implicit recognition of such an underlying right. In a concurrence, Justice Goldberg found that same right in the Ninth Amendment, and Justices White and Harlan argued that privacy is protected by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Wherever it resided–in a “penumbra” or the 14th Amendment–they agreed on its presence and importance.

The bottom line–a line virtually all Americans have come to rely upon–is that there is a limit to decisions that government may legitimately make. The very language of that libertarian premise I often quote indicates where that line is to be drawn: We the People have the right to live our lives in accordance with our own moral, ethical and religious beliefs, free of government restrictions, so long as we are not thereby harming the person or property of others, and so long as we are willing to grant an equal right to others.

Government, in other words, has the right–indeed, the obligation–to intervene when our behaviors are harming people who haven’t consented to that harm. Government must leave us alone–in Justice Brandeis felicitous formulation–otherwise. In my far less felicitous framing, the question is: who decides? If my beliefs or behaviors aren’t hurting anyone else, the decision must rest with me.

There can obviously be debates about the nature of harm. (Does a refusal to wear a seatbelt threaten others and justify seatbelt laws? how?) But that isn’t what today’s social issue debates are about. Today’s GOP is a White Nationalist Christian cult, intent upon breaching any right to self-determination that is inconsistent with its twisted theology–a theology not shared–indeed,rebutted– by many genuine Christians.

To the Americans who have relied on their right to direct their own lives for the past fifty years–who have pooh-poohed warnings about the Christian Taliban, confident that their right to self-determination was secure–Congress has sent a message. It can happen here.

In fact, it is happening. Right now.