“Housekeeping” note: My husband and I are departing today for a two-month cruise to Australia and New Zealand. I will have internet and plan to continue blogging, but I’m not sure when items will post, as time zones will change and we’ll cross the international date line a couple of times, so please bear with me!
Last week, a chapter of the Indianapolis Kiwanis invited me to discuss the book that Morton Marcus and I recently published. This is what I told them (sorry for the length…)
As I know you are all aware, Morton Marcus and I recently co-authored “From Property to Partner: Women’s Progress and Political Resistance.” When we began working on it, neither of us expected the political tsunami that would be ushered in by the Supreme Court in Dobbs v. Jackson.
Morton and I have been friends for some 30+ years, and he initially approached me about collaborating on a book that would identify and document the scientific and technological changes that had facilitated women’s progress. Morton absolutely bathes in data, and he was determined to share reams of evidence about the effect of things like railroads, bikes, and household appliances on women’s emancipation.
We both understood that genuine biological differences between men and women had shaped human cultures for thousands of years; and we both wanted to track how science and technology had minimized the social impact of those differences—how changes in the job market made physical strength less important and how various inventions reduced the time needed for housework, which is still considered “women’s work.” That sort of thing.
Morton did agree with me that the most important advances, by far, were the ones that allowed women—for the first time in history– to plan, defer or abstain from procreation without the necessity of remaining celibate. Birth control—especially the pill– allowed women to pursue educational and career choices that had formerly been available only to males.
Control of reproduction allowed women to participate fully in economic, civic and political life. No other advance has been nearly that consequential.
But control of reproduction ran headlong into fundamentalist and paternalistic religious beliefs that continue to influence America’s politics and culture. Although religions and denominations within them vary considerably with respect to birth control, abortion and the role of women, fundamentalist theologies support a patriarchy that is deeply rooted in history, politics and privilege. In the book, we explored the teachings of different religious traditions about women—the very different beliefs held by different religions about women’s roles in general, and the very dramatic differences about decisions to terminate a pregnancy.
As some of us are old enough to remember, before the advent of reliable birth control, every sexual encounter carried the risk of pregnancy, and pregnancy generally meant the end of a woman’s economic independence. A pregnant woman was almost always unemployable; for that matter, a married woman in her childbearing years was similarly unemployable, since there was always the possibility of pregnancy and the resulting need to care for offspring, seen as a uniquely female responsibility.
Most women were therefore economically dependent upon the men to whom they were married. (Refusing to marry was no panacea: unmarried women were routinely labeled “old maids,” and were objects of pity.) If her marriage was unhappy, or worse, violent, a woman with children was literally enslaved; given the barriers she faced to participation in the workforce and her resulting inability to support herself and her offspring, she usually couldn’t leave. Absent charitable intervention or inherited wealth—or friends or relatives willing to house and feed her and her children—she was totally dependent on her husband’s earnings.
That reality is why access to reliable contraception –and in situations where that contraception failed, abortion—was thus absolutely essential to women’s independence. If women could plan when to procreate, they could also plan when not to procreate. They could choose to schedule or defer motherhood in order to pursue education and career opportunities. The availability of the birth control pill didn’t just liberate millions of women, its availability and widespread use triggered enormous changes in social attitudes—some of which opened the door to legislation that advanced both females’ economic independence and their ability to more fully participate in the civic life of the nation.
The Dobbs decision, over-ruling Roe v Wade, came down when we had just begun our research for the book; it changed our focus and presented us with an obvious question: how would American women respond? What political consequences would we see to a decision that allowed states to deny women access to adequate healthcare during pregnancy– and also threatened to return them to second-class citizenship?
We knew we were about to see what happens when the dog finally catches the car…and you can probably guess our conclusion from the title of our final chapter: “When Mama Ain’t Happy, Ain’t Nobody Happy.”
So much for our book. I want to conclude with a point that is not widely understood. As politically consequential as the Dobbs decision has turned out to be, most non-lawyers really don’t understand how fundamentally it undermined constitutional rights that have absolutely nothing to do with abortion or the status of women.
For the past fifty years, Americans have relied upon a constitutional doctrine known as substantive due process, often called the “right to privacy.” That doctrine confirmed the American principle that certain “intimate” individual decisions—including one’s choice of sexual partners or the decision to use contraception– are none of government’s business.
Most constitutional scholars would argue that the right to personal autonomy has always been inherent in the Bill of Rights, but it was explicitly recognized in the 1965 case Griswold v. Connecticut. The Connecticut legislature had passed a law prohibiting the use of birth control by married couples. The law prohibited doctors from prescribing contraceptives and prohibiting pharmacists from filling those prescriptions.
The Supreme Court struck down the law, holding that whether a couple used contraceptives was not a decision government is entitled to make. The majority recognized that a right to personal autonomy—the right to self-government—was necessary to the enforcement of other provisions of the Bill of Rights, which would be difficult or impossible to respect without the recognition of such an underlying right. Justices White and Harlan found explicit confirmation of it in the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment—which is where the title “substantive due process” comes from. Wherever it resided–in a “penumbra” or the 14th Amendment—the Justices agreed on both its presence and importance.
As I’m sure you all know, procedural due process protects Americans’ right to a fair process—a fair trial or other government proceeding. Substantive due process distinguishes between decisions that government has the legitimate authority to make, and decisions which, in our system, must be left up to the individual. I used to tell my students that the Bill of Rights is essentially a list of things that government is forbidden to decide: what books you read, what opinions you form, what prayers you say (or don’t)—such matters are outside the legitimate role of government. The issue isn’t whether that book is dangerous or inappropriate, or that religion is false, or whether you should marry someone of the same sex, or whether you should procreate: the issue is who should get to make that decision.
Substantive due process draws a line between decisions government should make and those that must be made by the individual involved. Aside from its other logical and historical defects, the Dobbs decision ignored 50 years of precedents confirming that principle.
Dobbs also changed the focus of our little book, which became much more political than we had originally intended. That said, we had fun collaborating on it—and if you haven’t already bought it, I hope you will!!