Tag Archives: abortion

Ruth Marcus Schools The Court

A recent opinion column by Ruth Marcus is really a “must read” by anyone who thinks that the absence of a specific provision in America’s constitution is evidence that the document is “neutral” about an issue.

Marcus’ essay focuses on reproductive rights, but her explanation of the Constitution’s operation extends well beyond abortion. Although she doesn’t put it this way, what she is really exposing is the fact that judges who call themselves “originalists” are actually revisionists who use the absence of a particular word in the text to justify a preferred, distinctly unoriginal interpretation of the Bill of Rights.

The argument–which was on display during oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson- is that, absent express constitutional language, an issue must be left to “the people.” As Marcus points out,

The fundamental flaw here is that the Constitution exists in no small part to protect the rights of the individual against the tyranny of the majority. The Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment exist to put some issues off limits for majority rule — as Justice Robert H. Jackson put it in a 1943 ruling protecting the right of Jehovah’s Witness schoolchildren not to be forced to salute the flag, “to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities.” The Supreme Court, in protecting abortion rights, isn’t telling women what to do: It is preserving space for them to make their own decisions about their own pregnancies.

She also notes the highly selective application of the “leave it to the people” approach.

They’re happy to second-guess the decisions of elected officials and public health experts about how best to safeguard their communities in the midst of a pandemic when religious institutions claim their rights are being violated. They don’t flinch at saying that the core First Amendment protection for political speech places strict limits on Congress’s ability to limit corporate spending on elections or enact other campaign finance rules.

What this disingenuous argument rejects is the whole purpose of the Bill of Rights (the Founders’ actual “original intent”)–which was to keep government from invading the fundamental rights of the people to personal autonomy–the right to self-government. A reading of the history of the too-frequently overlooked Ninth and Tenth Amendments makes clear that “unenumerated” rights were among those to be protected.

When people argue that the right to privacy is not protected from government overreach because the word “privacy” doesn’t appear in the document, they conveniently ignore the reality that without recognizing a zone of privacy, it is impossible to give effect to very explicit provisions of the First, Third, Fourth and Ninth Amendments (not to mention the 14th, which was ratified after the Civil War.)

When the Supreme Court decided, in Bowers v. Hardwick, that the Constitution didn’t protect a right to homosexual behavior, because such behavior was not addressed in the document, legal scholars–and a later Court–addressed the fundamental error in that analysis: It had inverted the question. Where in the Constitution or Bill of Rights is government given authority to tell people who and how they can love?

The question is always: who gets to decide this matter, government or the individuals involved? The Bill of Rights answers that question by enumerating things government is forbidden to do. It cannot censor our speech, decide our religions, search our homes or persons without probable cause, or take a variety of other actions that invade an individual’s right to self-determination (the Constitutional definition of privacy).

As Marcus reminds readers,

There are any number of rights that the court has long found fall within the bounds of constitutional protection even though they are not specifically mentioned in the text. The right to travel. The right of parents to educate their children as they choose. The right to contraception. The right to private sexual conduct. The right to marry a person of another race. The right to marry a person of the same gender.

All these derive from the intentionally broad phrases of the 14th Amendment’s protections against the deprivation of “liberty” without due process of law. “The full scope of the liberty guaranteed by the Due Process Clause cannot be found in or limited by the precise terms of the specific guarantees elsewhere provided in the Constitution,” Justice John Harlan, no liberal, explained in a 1961 dissent, from an early case involving access to contraception.

If a woman’s right to control of her own body doesn’t have constitutional protection, then logically, none of the rights Marcus enumerates are protected either–and the intellectually dishonest “religious” conservatives on the Court are quite capable of coming for those rights in the future.

 

Some People Shouldn’t Be Parents

Not long after I joined the faculty at IUPUI’s School of Public and  Environmental Affairs (now the O’Neill School), I had a student whose answer to virtually every thorny policy issue we discussed was the same: license people before allowing them to become parents.

This was in an upper-level undergraduate class in Law and Public Policy, and the student’s “day job” was as a probation officer. (Like a significant percentage of undergraduate students at IUPUI back then, he was older than traditional college students, and had a full-time job.) Each time, I would patiently explain why the Bill of Rights prevents government from making so personal a life choice for individual citizens, and he would respond to the effect that such a constraint was unfortunate, because he saw the results of bad or inadequate parenting on a daily basis.

As I reflect on those discussions, I’ve concluded that we were both right.

It should be obvious that the decision whether to procreate is not a decision that government in a free society can or should make. (Speaking of obvious–someone needs to  forcefully remind six Justices on our current, politicized Supreme Court just why liberty requires procreation decisions to be left to the individuals involved .) But my student wasn’t wrong when he pointed out that some people simply should not be parents.

I thought about that student, and those long-ago discussions he initiated, when I read reports about the utterly unfathomable conduct of the parents of Ethan Crumbly, the young man who killed four classmates and wounded seven others in Michigan. Per CNN, we learned that the parents have been charged along with their son after they failed to appear for their arraignment, withdrew 4,0000 from an ATM, and hid out in a warehouse some 40 miles from their home in an apparent effort to flee.

The judge has set their bail at 500,000 each.

Parents of a school shooter are almost never charged, even when their negligent storage of weapons is implicated in a shooting. But these parents are–as my students might put it–something else.

Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald has alleged that James Crumbley on November 26 bought the gun at a store in Oxford, and that the parents gave the weapon to their son as an early Christmas present.

During Saturday’s arraignment, McDonald said, “It’s … clear from the facts that (Ethan Crumbley) had total access to this weapon,” and that the parents “didn’t secure (the gun) and they allowed him free access to it.”…Shortly after James Crumbley bought the gun November 26, his son posted a picture of a gun on an Instagram account and captioned it, “Just got my new beauty today. SIG SAUER 9mm” with a heart-eyes emoji, McDonald said.

If the parental culpability had stopped with the purchase and  grant of access, I doubt they’d have been charged, but their jaw-dropping behaviors went far beyond stupidity and negligence. Jennifer Crumbley  posted about the gun on social media, calling it “his new Christmas present,” and took her son to a shooting range the weekend before the school shooting. When a teacher discovered Ethan searching for ammunition on his phone–the day before the shooting– and reported it to school officials, the mother not only didn’t respond when those officials called her, but sent a text message to her son saying, “LOL I’m not mad at you. You have to learn not to get caught.”  

On the day of the shooting , a different teacher became alarmed by pictures Ethan had drawn showing bullets, a bloody body, and a laughing emoji–along with alarming text.

The parents were called for a meeting in the school with a counselor and their son, who by that time had altered the illustration “by scratching out the drawings of the gun and bloody figure, along with the words, according to McDonald.”

The parents refused to take their son out of the school, and he was allowed back to class.

Other media outlets have reported that school officials strongly recommended that the parents obtain immediate psychological counseling for Ethan, but the parents appeared to dismiss that recommendation.

Later in that day–the same day his parents had refused to take him home– Ethan Crumbley “opened fire outside a bathroom, aiming at students in the hallway as well as those who were hiding in classrooms.” He killed four students and injured seven.

Maybe my long-ago student was right when he opined that some individuals shouldn’t be parents.  Since the Supreme Court appears ready to give government the right to require parenthood, maybe the Justices should stop cloaking that decision in rhetoric about fetal personhood, and just hold that government can decide who gets to procreate.

After all, the government with power to tell people they can’t abort can also tell them they must…

 

The Court

The newly engineered Supreme Court will soon decide two abortion-rights cases: Texas’ empowerment of “pro-life” vigilantes, and a more threatening case from Mississippi that was argued this week.

When I describe today’s Court as “engineered,” I am referring to the brazenly unethical behavior of Mitch McConnell, who ensured the appointment of far-right Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett. Barrett, of course, joined five other conservative Justices, and probably guaranteed that Roe will be overturned or eviscerated.

What then?

According to the Guttmacher Institute,  extrapolating from 2014 statistics, one in four (24%) American women has had an abortion by age 45, despite the considerable barriers to the procedure that have been erected in some half of U.S. states. Fifty-nine percent of them were obtained by patients who had previously had at least one child, and 51% had been using a contraceptive method in the month they became pregnant.

As the country fractures and the Supreme Court drifts farther from any observable understanding of the environment within which it issues its decisions, I’m reminded of a column by Linda Greenhouse, in which she considered the legacy and evolution of Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to sit on the country’s highest court. Among other things, Greenhouse noted the deep friendship between O’Connor and Justice Stephen Breyer.

From the outside, it seemed an unlikely pairing, two people from opposing political parties with such different backgrounds, public personas and career paths. But they shared a deep concern about the practical effect of the court’s decisions.

When it comes to reproductive rights, those “practical effects” are likely to be dire. A recent study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that–in addition to financial and emotional problems–women who had been denied abortions experienced long-term health problems.

There’s a good deal of research that shows, in the short term, having an abortion is much safer than childbirth, but there isn’t much research over the long-term,” says study co-author Lauren Ralph, an assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at the University of California, San Francisco. “Our study demonstrates that having an abortion is not detrimental to women’s health, but being denied access to a wanted one likely is.”

According to the study, women who were denied abortions “consistently” faced worse health outcomes than those who weren’t. “The findings were consistent with a raft of other studies highlighting some of the most serious consequences women face when government restricts women’s access to abortion.

It isn’t only women who face adverse consequences from that denial.

The discourse around abortion tends to focus on women and generally fails to consider how being denied an abortion affects the children a pregnant woman already has and those she may have in the future. The research is clear: Restricting access to abortion doesn’t just harm women — it harms their children as well…Our study shows that denying a woman a wanted abortion has a negative impact on her life and the lives of her children.

A University of Colorado study found that banning abortion nationwide would lead to a 21% increase in the number of pregnancy-related deaths overall and a 33% increase among Black women.

None of these consequences bother the zealots who are “pro fetal life.” (They certainly aren’t “pro” the life and health of women–or concerned about the wellbeing of children once they’re born.) They are willing to ignore two undeniable facts: (1) as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists insists, access to abortion is an important part of women’s health care; and (2) outlawing the procedure will not end abortions. It will simply end medically safe abortions for women who cannot afford to travel to states where the procedure is legal.

Beyond those “practical effects” is the undeniable message that is sent when government intrudes on intimate moral decisions properly left to individual citizens. As Michelle Goldberg recently wrote,

As the feminist Ellen Willis once put it, the central question in the abortion debate is not whether a fetus is a person, but whether a woman is. People, in our society, generally do not have their bodies appropriated by the state.

I realize that none of the documented practical effects of gutting Roe v. Wade will persuade the minority of Americans who think they have the right to impose their religious (or misogynist) beliefs on the clear majority that doesn’t share them, or the politicians who continue to use the issue to motivate their voters (while not-infrequently pressuring their mistresses to abort accidental pregnancies).

I do wonder, however: what will a “victory” for pro-fetal-life activists mean politically? How many of the substantial number of women who have had abortions–and the partners and family members who helped them make that decision– will respond by becoming the new “single-issue” voters?

A Link And A Prayer…

Tonight, Monday, October 4, at 7:30 p.m. I will be on a panel (via Zoom–link below) discussing the impending threats to reproductive choice, from Texas to Mississippi.

https://us06web.zoom.us/j/96415122645

Here’s the description, and for those who want to “attend,” the information for RSVPing:

Rabbi Dennis Sasso hosts a conversation regarding reproductive rights after the controversy related to the abortion laws in Texas. Rabbi Sandy Sasso will moderate the conversation and share the Jewish perspective with guests Dr. Leigh Meltzer, Obstetrics & Gynecology Physician at IU Health, and Emerita Professor of Law and Public Policy Sheila Kennedy. R.S.V.P to jgoldstein@bez613.org or (317) 253-3441.

For those who would like to see the discussion but can’t make tonight’s Zoom presentation,I’m told the session will be recorded, and will be available on the Congregation’s You Tube channel. (Who knew congregations had You Tube channels!)

My brief introductory remarks mostly reiterate points I’ve previously made on this blog, but in case any of you have missed my “take” on Texas, etc., I’m pasting a rough draft below. I anticipate a fairly lively discussion following the introductory remarks from the three of us.

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There are three things we need to understand about the context of today’s legal debates over abortion—one philosophical, one historical, one sociological.

Liberal democracies are grounded in the libertarian premise that we are all entitled to make our own moral choices unless we are harming the person or property of someone else. In order to be considered legitimate in a diverse liberal democracy, legislation banning or requiring certain behaviors on moral grounds should reflect widespread public consensus—That’s why the First Amendment’s religious liberty clauses, properly understood, forbid government from imposing the religious beliefs of some Americans on others.

When it comes to abortion, that consensus does not exist.

Historically, the “pro life” movement was not, as popular mythology suggests, a reaction to Roe v. Wade. It wasn’t until 1979—a full six years after Roe—that evangelical leaders, goaded by Paul Weyrich, seized on abortion as “a rallying-cry to deny President Jimmy Carter a second term.” Objecting to abortion was seen as “more palatable” and more likely to motivate religiously conservative Christian voters than the actual motivation, which was denial of tax exemptions for the segregated schools established following the decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

Those origins persist. Sociological research confirms that Whites who score high on measures of racial resentment and racial grievance are far more likely to support strict limits on abortion than whites who score low on these measures. Research also confirms that people active in the “pro life” movement are much more likely to be committed to a patriarchal worldview in which control of reproduction, and female sexuality in particular, is important to the maintenance of the gender hierarchy they support.

The history and research go a long way toward explaining why it is so difficult to have evidence-based, logical discussions about abortion and birth control with anti-choice activists. The issue isn’t really abortion.

What is far less well understood, however, is that the consequences of upholding Texas’ law—if, in fact, the Court eventually does that—would be devastating, and would extend far beyond the issue of abortion. (Thus far, as you know, the Court has simply punted—it hasn’t ruled on the constitutionality of the law.)

A decision to allow the empowerment of culture war vigilantes would achieve a longstanding goal of so-called “states rights” fundamentalists: a return to the days when state and local lawmakers could impose their preferred “morality” on their citizens–and not-so-incidentally decide which citizens were entitled to equal rights– without the interference of the federal government.

Such a decision would effectively approve a federalism on steroids, and—I am not engaging in hyperbole here—the effective unraveling of the “United” States.

I used to explain to my students that one of the salutary effects of the incorporation of the Bill of Rights was that it ensured a “floor”–so that when someone moves from New York to Alabama or Texas, they don’t suddenly lose their right to religious liberty or free speech or their protections against unreasonable search and seizure..

Texas’ law strikes a terrifying blow against that principle.

Let me explain why this law created private vigilantes. The idea is that by enlisting private citizens to enforce the law the state can avoid challenges to the bill’s constitutionality. The theory is that, since the state itself won’t be directly involved in enforcing the law, state officials won’t be proper defendants to a lawsuit.

Why does that matter?

What far too many Americans don’t understand about their protections under the Bill of Rights is the requirement of state action–the Bill of Rights protects us against government infringement of our liberties–not against intrusions by private actors. If there hasn’t been state action–government action– there hasn’t been a constitutional violation.

Allowing this gambit to succeed would do much more than leave the most restrictive anti-abortion law in the country in place; it would encourage other states to employ similar tactics–and not just for abortion, but for all sorts of culture war issues and from all political perspectives. As Lawrence Tribe recently warned, California could shift to private enforcement of its gun control regulations, never mind the Second Amendment implications of such restrictions. Vermont could shift to private enforcement of its environmental regulations, never mind the federal pre-emption implications. And the list goes on.

This ploy shouldn’t pass constitutional muster. In law school, I remember studying a 1948 case involving racially-restrictive deed covenants. Those covenants were between private parties, but the Court found state action present because those private deed restrictions could only be enforced with the participation of judges, clerks and other state officials. That case is still good law.

The vigilantes authorized by this legislation may be private citizens, but the law can’t be enforced without involving the apparatus of the state.

The bottom line is that, if successful, this effort would empower zealots of both the right and left.  This is probably not what the idiots in the Texas legislature had in mind, but it would be an almost-certain consequence. Even a more conventional overruling of Roe –a distinct possibility in a case pending from Mississippi—would invite unintended consequences. We can discuss those during Q and A.

Finally, as many of you know, my longstanding preoccupation has been with civic literacy—with the failure of so many Americans to understand their own government. The pandemic has given us a glaring illustration of that ignorance; we have officials and pundits insisting that they have the right to control their own bodies, that government can’t tell them to be vaccinated. Ironically, most of the people making this argument are anti-choice—in other words, they are claiming a right for themselves that they are unwilling to extend to others. But it isn’t only the glaring hypocrisy; they are also wrong. Government has a duty to prevent citizens from harming others, and the Court has recognized the right to mandate vaccination for at least 100 years. A woman who aborts is not a threat to her neighbors; a citizen who refuses to wear a mask or be vaccinated is such a threat–and the law recognizes the distinction even if too many Americans don’t.
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When The Issue Isn’t Really The Issue

Thanks to the effort by Texas to totally ban abortion, the issue of reproductive choice has once again taken center stage in America’s interminable culture war.  But as Thomas Edsall has recently pointed out, a purported issue isn’t always, or necessarily, the real issue.

I always read Edsall’s essays in the New York Times, because he draws on both the history of whatever issue he is exploring and on a wide range of scholarly research in order to craft his conclusions. This particular piece is no different. As he tells us,

As recently as 1984, abortion was not a deeply partisan issue.

“The difference in support for the pro-choice position was a mere six percentage points,” Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University, told me by email. “40 percent of Democratic identifiers were pro-life, while 39 percent were pro-choice. Among Republican identifiers, 33 percent were pro-choice, 45 percent were pro-life and 22 percent were in the middle.”

By 2020, of course, that situation had changed, with 73 percent of Democrats taking the pro-choice position (only 17 percent were “pro-life”–the other 10 percent were in the middle). That year, 60 percent of Republicans claimed to be pro-life; 25 percent were pro-choice, and 15 percent were in the middle.

If Edsall was commenting only on the growth of the partisan divide, that would be interesting but hardly surprising. What was surprising was the association between opposition to abortion and–wait for it–racial attitudes.

Whites who score high on measures of racial resentment and racial grievance are far more likely to support strict limits on abortion than whites who score low on these measures. This is part of a larger picture in which racial attitudes are increasingly linked with opinions on a wide range of disparate issues including social welfare issues, gun control, immigration and even climate change. The fact that opinions on all of these issues are now closely interconnected and connected with racial attitudes is a key factor in the deep polarization within the electorate that contributes to high levels of straight ticket voting and a declining proportion of swing voters.

I have previously posted about the origins of the anti-choice movement. Historians of religion have located those origins in conservative rage over the denial of tax benefits to the Whites-only academies that had been established to avoid integration. They had politicized abortion in order to motivate Christian conservative activism while dodging the less-palatable race issue.

There are other, less surprising associations: according to one scholar cited by Edsall, people who are active in the “pro life” movement are more likely to be committed to a patriarchal worldview in which control of reproduction, and female sexuality in particular, is important to the maintenance of  the gender hierarchy they support.

Women have noticed…

Edsall offers historical evidence that the issue of abortion has “evolved”–lending credibility to the claim that it is a proxy for a worldview that encompasses far more than religious convictions about reproductive choice.

Fifty years ago, the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in St. Louis approved what by the standards of 1971 was a decisively liberal resolution on abortion:

Be it further resolved, that we call upon Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.

Edsall cites historian Randall Balmer for an observation often made by people critical of the anti-abortion movement: “the beauty of defending a fetus is that the fetus demands nothing in return — housing, health care, education — so it’s a fairly low-risk advocacy.” As pro-choice folks frequently point out, what is called a “pro-life position” is often merely “pro-birth,” since so many of the people espousing it are uninterested in feeding, clothing and educating the child once it emerges from the womb.

And of course, there’s the recent spectacle of anti-choice folks claiming “my body my choice”as justification for refusing vaccination. (Not only is that hypocritical inconsistency infuriating,  a woman exercising reproductive choice isn’t infecting her neighbors…a distinction that clearly eludes them…)

Edsall’s essay explains what, for many pro-choice advocates, has been a conundrum: why are opponents of abortion not seeking wide accessibility to birth control? Surely they should want to avoid  the unplanned, unwanted pregnancies that lead to abortion, so why are some of the most fervent “pro-lifers” actually opposed to birth control?

Edsall and the scholars he cites have provided support for the answer many of us have suspected. For far too many of these “warriors for life,” the issue isn’t really the issue.