Tag Archives: Dobbs

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…”

 

“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…

 

The Trump Court

I’ve been on the email list of the Brookings Institution for a number of years. It was–and is– an excellent source of thoughtful, balanced policy analyses, and it provided me with valuable background for my classes when I was teaching Law and Policy.

Over the years, I’ve become accustomed to the language and style of Brookings publications–very consistent with that of academic discourse and a variety of other highly credible, scholarly resources. (Not like the snark you often get here.) So I was bemused–to put it mildly– by the opening paragraphs of a recent essay. 

“We hold that Roe and Casey must be overruled. The Constitution makes no reference to abortion, and no such right is implicitly protected.” With those chilling words an illegitimately obtained Supreme Court majority tore up the lives of Americans & the Constitution in the Dobbs opinion authored by Justice Samuel Alito. The votes for this opinion were only available because Merrick Garland was wrongly blockaded at the end of the Obama administration and Amy Coney Barrett hypocritically jammed through at the end of the Trump one.

The Alito opinion comes in the midst of congressional hearings exposing the sickness of Trump’s style of governance—Trumpery, as we term it in a new book. The Dobbs opinion also exemplifies Trumpery, and its features provide a useful framework for understanding just how bad the opinion is. The Court should be known from here on out as the Trump Court.

Perhaps the single most defining characteristic of Trumpery is its disdain for the rule of law. The Alito opinion in the Dobbs case has that in spades. A central tenet of Supreme Court jurisprudence is stare decisis, the idea that once the Supreme Court has ruled on something, it is settled law and is entitled to permanence, even if later courts may disagree with it. That is particularly true where you have a decades long established precedent like Roe.

It is certainly true that past Courts have overruled settled precedents when it has become blindingly obvious that they are unjust and/or inconsistent with contemporary science and mores–Plessy v. Ferguson and Bowers v. Hardwick come to mind. But the thrust of the quoted paragraph is accurate; until the elevation of theocratic jurists intent upon the destruction of jurisprudence equating  liberty with a significant degree of personal autonomy, precedents were accorded a high level of deference.

The essay proceeded to compare the current iteration of the Supreme Court to Trump’s incessant assaults on democratic norms– assaults that the January 6th Committee hearings are meticulously documenting.

As we are being painfully reminded in the Jan. 6 hearings, that assault over time undermined and weakened the executive branch and Americans’ faith in it. Alito and the five justices who joined with him are sending the Supreme Court down that same slippery slope.

The authors make a point that I have made repeatedly in the wake of this deeply dishonest decision–it didn’t just take aim at abortion. It was a point that Justice Thomas acknowledged in his concurrence:

“in future cases, we should reconsider all of this Court’s substantive due process precedents, including Griswold, Lawrence, and Obergefell.” Americans’ right to contraception, to make consensual choices in the bedroom and to same-sex marriage are all up for grabs. How long before states are also free to re-criminalize premarital sex and interracial relationships?

There are other parallels: Trump was shameless, and the authors point out that–like Trump–Alito displays absolutely no embarrassment about the rampant dishonesty of his opinion, dishonesty that was necessary in order to reach a result he personally favored. Nor does this Court care about the social consequences of a predictably divisive opinion. Alito wrote “We cannot allow our decisions to be affected by any extraneous influences such as concern about the public’s reaction to our work.”

Of course, concern about public reaction is one reason for the doctrine of stare decisis, which aims to avoid abruptly upsetting long-settled rules and expectations. Intensifying social divisions was also a Trumpian trademark, and as the authors note, “this opinion smacks of a similar approach.”

It’s hard to disagree with the authors’ conclusion that this decision–one of this term’s string of shocking and damaging departures from settled jurisprudence– will decimate  what is left of the legitimacy of the Supreme Court.

Although it was news to Alabama’s current Senator, the U.S. has three branches of government. Unfortunately, none are currently functional.

We have a gridlocked Congress, immobilized by lawmakers putting fealty  to party over loyalty to country; an Executive whose agenda is obstructed by that Congress; and now, a rogue Court disdained and distrusted by a majority of citizens.

That’s a description of a failed state.

No wonder the language employed by Brookings these days is less restrained.

What’s Different This Time? A Lot.

Back in the 60s, Bob Dylan told us that “the times, they are a-changing.” They still are.

I’ve been thinking about about the Supreme Court’s efforts to reverse social change, and the extent to which their targets have become too firmly embedded in the culture to be reversed.

Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973–almost exactly 50 years ago–and we sometimes forget how much American life  has changed since then. I’ve been thinking about what those changes may mean for the radical Court decision to overrule the constitutional right of a woman to control her own reproduction.

Consider just a few…

  •  Roe was argued in a void of sorts.Tthere was virtually no public discussion of women’s experiences with abortion, because it had been illegal in many if not most states, and coming forward to publicly explain and provide context to a decision to terminate a pregnancy would have labeled the woman a criminal. As Dobbs made its way through the judicial system, however, women faced no such restraint, and their stories have illustrated the multiplicity of situations women face, and the intensely personal impacts of their decisions.
  • Columnist Jennifer Rubin has written about one outcome of that public discussion–widespread recognition of the cruelty of forced birth. How do you defend GOP insistence that a 10-year-old girl impregnated by her rapist carry that pregnancy to term? Yet in that very real case, at least two Republican gubernatorial candidates have affirmed their belief that this child should be required to give birth. As Rubin noted, those utterances by GOP candidates weren’t anomalous: Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn said that, in his view, a 12-year-old impregnated by incest should be forced to complete her pregnancy. Herschel Walker, the Georgia Republican Senate nominee, insists he wants no exceptions, even to save the woman’s life. Ohio state Rep. Jean Schmidt has called forcing a 13-year-old rape victim to give birth an “opportunity.” Even people with qualms about abortion are likely repulsed by this sick lack of concern for the lives and health of living women.
  • Poll after poll shows that most people who want to restrict abortion don’t want to ban the procedure entirely. Yet–as The New York Times reports– “There are no allowances for victims of rape or incest in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, Ohio, South Dakota, Tennessee or Texas.” In Idaho, a woman would have to file a police report to obtain an abortion, something virtually impossible for incest victims and others who live in fear of their attackers.”
  • As legal observers have noted–and survey research has confirmed--the U.S. Supreme Court is in the midst of a full-fledged legitimacy crisis, worsened by a steady stream of extreme decisions handed down by the conservative supermajority. Opinions about the Court are far more negative than they were in 1973.
  • The decision in Dobbs, as I’ve previously explained, rests on an analysis that threatens other rights–rights that weren’t recognized fifty years ago (and thus were not “deeply rooted” in Justice Alito’s version of American history) such as same-sex marriage (2015), contraception (1965) and interracial marriage (1967). That threat is widely understood, and it significantly expands the number of Americans who (accurately) view Dobbs as a personal threat.
  • The media environment today is dramatically different from that of 1973. Whatever their negatives–and I routinely post about those negatives–the ubiquity of the Internet and social media means that very few Americans are unaware of either the Court’s decision or its likely impacts. Digital communication has also made it much, much easier to organize political movements and raise dollars–and we are already seeing a strong political response online to what is being described–again, I believe accurately–as a theocratic and profoundly anti-liberty decision.
  • Over the past fifty years women have become considerably more empowered.
  • The percentage of Americans following the dictates of organized religion is at an all-time low.

I’m old, and I remember 1973.

In 1973, my mother–who was considered pretty liberated for her time– was still saying things like “Men won’t buy the cow if they can get the milk for free.” Women who had sex outside of marriage were considered sluts. Women who dared to have both children and careers were  “obviously” bad mothers. Women who weren’t married were pitied and called “old maids.” Women who earned more than their husbands were “castrating.” Women who played sports were unfeminine–and the very few women who wanted to report on sports were barred from male players’ locker rooms…It was 1974 before we could even get our own credit cards.

In short, a lot has changed since 1973. As a recent car commercial puts it, “this isn’t your father’s Oldsmobile.”  

 In 1971, Helen Reddy wrote our anthem..

In 2022, I think women really are going to roar.