Texas, in an excess of zeal to control women’s reproductive choices, has enacted a bill–which, at this writing, has gone into effect–that would essentially undermine America’s understanding of the rule of law.
I’ve posted previously about the analysis of that measure by Constitutional Law professors Laurence H. Tribe and Stephen I. Vladeck.
Not only has Texas banned virtually all abortions after the sixth week of pregnancy, a point at which many women do not even know they’re pregnant, it has also provided for enforcement of that ban by private citizens. If you suspect that a Texan is seeking to obtain an abortion after the sixth week of pregnancy, not only will you be able to sue the provider to try to stop it, but if you succeed, you’ll also be entitled to compensation. (And what’s known as the litigation privilege would likely protect you from a defamation claim even if you’re wrong.) The law, known as S.B. 8, effectively enlists the citizenry to act as an anti-abortion Stasi.
As they point out, enlisting private citizens to enforce the law is intended to avoid challenges to the bill’s constitutionality. The theory is that, since the state itself will not be directly involved in enforcing the law (unlike under “private attorney general” statutes, only private citizens can bring these suits), state’s officials will not be proper defendants to a lawsuit. What far too many Americans do not 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.
No state action, no 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. Per Tribe and Vladeck,
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. I wholeheartedly agree with the professors’ citation of a 1948 case involving racially-restrictive deed covenants, in which the Court found state action present because private deed restrictions could only be enforced with the participation of judges, clerks and other state officials.
The vigilantes authorized by this legislation may be private citizens, but the law can’t be enforced without involving the apparatus of the state.
If successful, this effort would empower the zealots among us, right and left, turning citizens against one another on whatever contentious issues legislators chose. This is probably not what the idiots in the Texas legislature had in mind, but it would be an almost-certain consequence.
However, even a more conventional overruling of Roe invites unintended consequences.
This year, the Supreme Court will review Mississippi’s ban on virtually all abortions after the 15th week of pregnancy. A Court created by Donald Trump is likely to overrule–or eviscerate–Roe v. Wade. If it does so, Republicans may come to rue the day.
Without Roe, the single-issue anti-choice voters that have been a mainstay of the GOP will be considerably less motivated. Pro-choice voters, however, will be newly energized–and polling suggests they significantly outnumber “pro-life” activists.
The de-nationalization of Roe wouldn’t just mobilize pro-choice voters who’ve relied on Roe to protect their rights. It would redirect liberal and pro-choice energies from national to state-level political action. And that could be a huge game-changer.
If Roe is no longer the law of the land, the issue will revert to the states, and a number of states will opt for reproductive choice. Those of us who care about women’s autonomy will need to do some serious fundraising to help poor women in Red states travel to states where abortion is legal, and that’s a pain. But even now, with abortion theoretically legal, there are many places in the U.S. where clinics are few and far between; women have to travel long distances, put up with bogus “counseling,” and deal with other barriers to the exercise of the currently constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy.
As I have repeatedly noted, the current dominance of the Republican Party doesn’t reflect American majority sentiments–far from it. GOP membership has been shrinking steadily; some 24% of voters self-identify as Republican (and thanks to vaccine resistance, those numbers are dwindling…) GOP gerrymandering and vote suppression tactics are artifacts of state-level control. With Roe gone, purple states–including Texas–will more quickly turn blue.
If Roe goes, the game changes. File under: be careful what you wish for.