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.
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 email@example.com 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.
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.