The final part of my “War on Women” argument is mercifully short.
A Constitutional U-Turn
In addition to the First Amendment’s prohibition against legislating religious doctrine, 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 has strengthened the conviction of most Americans that certain “intimate” individual decisions—including one’s choice of sexual partners or the decision to use contraception– are none of government’s business.
The right to privacy was explicitly recognized in a 1965 case titled Griswold v. Connecticut. The Court was considering the constitutionality of a Connecticut law prohibiting the use of birth control by married couples. (The law also prohibited doctors from prescribing or pharmacists from selling contraceptives.) William O. Douglas’s majority opinion reflected the logic of its conclusion. He wrote “Would we allow the police to search the sacred precincts of marital bedrooms for telltale signs of the use of contraceptives? The very idea is repulsive to the notions of privacy surrounding the marriage relationship.”
The majority recognized that a right to personal autonomy was necessary to the enforcement of several of the amendments, which Douglas noted would be difficult or impossible to respect without the implicit recognition of such an underlying right. In a concurrence, Justice Goldberg found that same right in the Ninth Amendment, and Justices White and Harlan argued that privacy is protected by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment—hence the doctrinal title “substantive due process.” Wherever it resided–in a “penumbra” or the 14th Amendment–a majority of the Justices agreed on its presence and importance.
Procedural due process protects Americans’ right to a fair process—a fair trial or other governmental proceeding. Substantive due process distinguishes between decisions that government has the legitimate authority to make, and decisions which must be left to each individual. In the fifty years since Griswold, the recognition that the U.S. Constitution protects personal autonomy and respects the right of each individual to self-determination has powerfully influenced American culture. Much of the anger over the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs can be traced to shock over Justice Alito’s assault on what most Americans had come to consider a bedrock principle:
Government has the right–indeed, the obligation–to intervene when a person’s behaviors are harming people who haven’t consented to that harm. (Mask mandates to protect public health are an example.) Otherwise, government must leave us alone. Secular and religiously tolerant Americans who had dismissed warnings about growing fundamentalist assaults on that principle, confident that their right to self-determination was secure, reacted to the conservative Christian overtones in Dobbs, justifying an invasion of that right, with predictable shock.
As the foregoing discussion has made clear, different religions—and different denominations within those religions– have very different beliefs about women and procreation, and what amounts to the Court’s elevation of a particular version of Christianity has engendered an enormous and negative reaction. Survey research has confirmed that a majority of Americans, including a majority of religiously-affiliated Americans, disagree with the Court’s decision, and are even more opposed to emerging efforts to make access to contraception difficult or impossible. Large numbers of Americans see the overturning of Roe and cases like Hobby Lobby[ as part of an escalating war on women.
On November 8th, the American people need to send an unmistakable message to the arrogant theocrats and paternalists on the Court. A massive vote for Democrats–BLUE NO MATTER WHO–will send that message, in three parts: it will be a repudiation of the Court’s current trajectory; a signal that the Court’s legitimacy has dangerously eroded; and it will convey a willingness to make significant changes to the Court’s composition and jurisdiction.
A failure to send that message will be seen as acquiescence to the Court’s retrograde direction, with very negative consequences for all Americans, not just women.