As the Senate “considers” the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh (note quotation marks, since support for this particular nominee is entirely partisan and no genuine consideration of his record is being allowed), much of the focus is on his presumed “pro life” approach to cases involving abortion.
Media framing of this issue highlights the most frustrating element of America’s “pro-choice” or “pro-life” public debate: the persistent refusal to confront the actual question, which is not whether a pregnant woman should continue or terminate her pregnancy.
The question is: who should have the power to make that decision?
As I have repeatedly argued, a government with the authority to forbid abortion is a government with the authority to require it. I usually point to China, where the government has done precisely that, but yesterday, my lawyer son pointed me to a case right here in the good old U.S. of A.– and a judicial decision by none other than Brett Kavanaugh.
In 2007, as an appellate judge in Washington, D.C., Kavanaugh was presented with an unusual case involving two women who had wanted to continue their pregnancies but had been forced to have abortions instead. They sued and Kavanaugh ruled against them, denying their claims that they had a right to be consulted about the decision to terminate their pregnancies.
Many Americans, probably most, understand the abortion debate to be about a struggle between the right of women to bodily autonomy and the “right to life” that anti-choicers claim embryos and fetuses have. In reality, as this case shows, the legal debate is really only about autonomy — so much so that an anti-choice judge like Kavanaugh ruled against women who wanted to “choose life,” as conservatives say, rather than allow them a greater measure of autonomy….
The case is a complex one, but the basic story involved three women who received care from the District of Columbia Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Administration. All three women had intellectual disabilities and had been determined legally incompetent. One woman had an elective eye surgery and two had abortions, all chosen for them without any consideration of their wishes. The women argued that they had a right to have their wishes considered, but Kavanaugh ruled against them….
Legal standards regarding who is competent to make medical decisions for themselves are complicated and vary quite a bit from state to state. But Mathis said that even in states that have the fewest autonomy rights for people with certain disabilities, “most courts consider the person’s wishes,” even if they may ultimately rule against them. Kavanaugh, however, “just rejected the notion that there was any reason at all” to ask the women in that case what they wanted.
I emphasized that last line, because it illuminates what is truly at stake in these arguments. The question is not “to abort or not to abort.” The question is: who decides? The Bill of Rights is essentially a list of things that government does not get to decide–what you read, what you believe, whether or to whom you pray. Government officials don’t get to decide to search you (or your “papers or effects”) simply because you look shifty, or out of place, or because the officer “has a hunch.”
As snotty as the faux originalists are about the constitutional “penumbra” referenced in Roe, it is impossible to read through the Bill of Rights without recognizing that the entire document rests on the Founder’s concern to protect personal autonomy and to safeguard the right of individuals to make their own moral and political decisions–including what the Court has subsequently dubbed “intimate” decisions–free of government coercion or interference. The 9th and 10th Amendments make it clear that rights not “enumerated” (that is, not specifically listed) are not to be “denied or disparaged,” and that powers not specifically delegated to the central government are to be retained by the states and the people.
It is an act of intellectual dishonesty to dismiss the limits that the Bill of Rights places on government’s authority to control its citizens’ exercise of self-determination.
The question, I repeat, is not “what shall be decided?” but “who shall decide it?”
The question for Brett Kavanaugh is not whether he fancies himself “pro-life.” It is whether he is willing to acknowledge that the power of government to control women’s lives is limited by our constitution.
His jurisprudence makes it abundantly clear that he is not willing to make that acknowledgement. For that reason (and a number of other very troubling decisions he has handed down), he is unfit to sit on the nation’s highest court.